By Joseph Guyler Delva
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Protesters in Haiti who blame United Nations troops for a cholera epidemic that has killed hundreds attacked U.N. peacekeepers with rocks in two cities on Monday, raising questions about security ahead of presidential elections this month, authorities said.
In Haiti's second city of Cap-Haitien in the North, hundreds of protesters yelling anti-U.N. slogans hurled stones at U.N. peacekeepers, set up burning barricades and torched a police station, Haitian officials said.
"The whole city is blocked, businesses and schools have closed, cars have been burnt. It's chaos here," a businessman in Cap-Haitien, Georgesmain Prophete, told Reuters.
Adouin Zephirin, the government representative in Cap-Haitien, said some injuries were reported but no deaths.
At Hinche in the central region, demonstrators threw stones at Nepalese troops who have been the subject of widespread rumours that they brought to Haiti the cholera bacteria behind the month-long epidemic.
The U.N. mission in Haiti, which is helping the poor Caribbean country rebuild after a devastating January 12 earthquake, has denied rumours that latrines close to a river at the Nepalese U.N. camp were the cause of the cholera outbreak.
The U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said DNA testing shows the cholera strain in Haiti is most closely related to a strain from South Asia. But it has not pinpointed the source or linked it directly to the Nepalese troops, whom the U.N. says tested negative for the disease.
The epidemic, which has killed more than 900 people and sickened close to 15,000, has inflicted another crisis on the Western Hemisphere's poorest state as it struggles to rebuild from the quake that killed more than 250,000. Fear, uncertainty and anger have swept the country already traumatized by the quake, which also left 1.5 million homeless.
Nevertheless, Haiti's government has not postponed presidential and legislative elections scheduled for November 28, which the more than 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in the country is helping to organise and protect.
U.N. police spokesman Andre Leclerc said the U.N. peacekeepers in Cap-Haitien used tear gas to try to disperse the protesters.
"Right now, the streets are still blocked. There is no traffic," said government delegate Zephirin, who added authorities were working to clear the streets.
Joany Caneus, director of police for the northern region where Cap-Haitien is located, said the anti-U.N. demonstrators there set fire to the Pont Neuf police station.
"You can imagine how difficult it is when we cannot have the usual back-up of the U.N. troops, because they themselves are in difficulty," he told Reuters. He added the U.N. peacekeepers in the city had asked for a Haitian police patrol to be posted in front of their headquarters.
"So we don't only have to protect the population, we also have to protect U.N. troops ... We are working on ways to control the situation," Caneus said.
Leclerc said U.N. reinforcements were being sent to Cap-Haitien.
Last month, in the central town of Saint-Marc, at the heart of the cholera outbreak, stone-throwing local residents apparently fearing contagion disrupted the setting up of a cholera treatment centre, burning several tents.
This month's elections are due to elect a successor to President Rene Preval, a 99-member parliament and 11 members of the 30-seat Senate, choosing leaders to steer Haiti's recovery from the crippling quake that wrecked the capital Port-au-Prince.
Analysts say the elections could be the most important in Haiti's history, but many see the path to the polls threatened by risks of political violence, as well as the huge humanitarian challenges.
Experts say Haiti's widespread poverty and poor sanitation have been major factors in the rapid spread of the cholera epidemic, which has affected six of the country's 10 provinces. The last cholera epidemic in Haiti was a century ago.
But the experts say it is difficult to trace the source of the outbreak with certainty, or determine how it had re-entered the country after such a long absence.
(Writing and additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher in Miami; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)