Protesters retreat in Haiti but warn government needs to reduce prices or face more chaos

(iht) - Peacekeepers cleared roadblocks and businesses reopened in Haiti's debris-littered capital Thursday, but protesters warned that chaos will return quickly if the government fails to rein in soaring food prices.

Three days of protests and looting in the capital brought a swift political response, with most of Haiti's 27 senators calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis. Protesters said President Rene Preval should be replaced as well if he doesn't find a solution.

"If you can't take care of the country, you are like a leaf and you should fall," said Fortune Metilien, a 42-year-old garbage collector.

Metilien and many of the other protesters carried tree branches to symbolize their support for former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who has vowed to return since a 2004 revolt sent him into exile in South Africa. Many demonstrators sang a popular song that includes the refrain: "If Aristide were here, it wouldn't be like this."

And some people in the Cite Soleil slum, a bastion of Aristide support, said envoys of the Aristide-aligned Rev. Gerard Jean-Juste visited Monday and told them to protest peacefully.

But while some blamed Aristide supporters, others attributed the protests to drug smugglers bent on creating chaos. The unrest began last week in Les Cayes, the base of fugitive rebel leader Guy Philippe who is wanted in the U.S. on drug-smuggling charges. Five people died there.

Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia, doubts there is any political motive to the protests at all, describing them as a spontaneous reaction to food prices, which have risen 40 percent globally since mid-2007.

"The protests themselves are very logical given what's happening to the cost of living," he said.

Haiti is particularly affected by the rising prices because people are so poor, and almost all their money goes into buying food.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called this week for emergency aid, and France said Thursday it will send US$1.6 million (€1 million), including US$1.2 million (€800,000) worth of food.

Preval, in his first public comments since the unrest began, pledged Wednesday to help farmers and appealed for a halt to the violence - an appeal that seemed to be working.

On Thursday, some protesters threw rocks at a U.N. building in the Martissant slum, and tires burned elsewhere the city. But routine business resumed across most of Port-au-Prince, the capital of 2 million people, as cars and motorcycles formed long lines at gas stations that had been closed for days.

Even so, it was clear people expected Preval to act fast. Young men in Martissant shouted that the protests will resume quickly if Preval does not bring down the price of rice.

"We heard the speech, but the speech is empty," said student protest organizer Herve Saintiles, 37. "We are going to hold the president responsible for all these problems."

Alexis, Preval's second-in-command, was in a precarious position. He survived a confidence vote over the government's handling of the economy in February, but the senators said they would call another censure vote on Saturday.

Preval was once a protege of Aristide, a popular priest driven from office amid accusations of corruption and that he supported brutal gangs. But Aristide supporters who backed Preval are now turning away from him.

Marie Carmel Jean-Baptiste, a 35-year-old resident of Cite Soleil, said she voted for Preval - but not because she thinks he's a good president.

"I voted Preval to hold on until Aristide comes back," she said.

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