Port-au-prince: Thousands of protesters rampaged in Haitian towns Wednesday, torching buildings in armed clashes that left four dead, after election results triggered bitter accusations of vote-rigging, witnesses said.
Supporters of popular singer Michel Martelly took to the streets after Tuesday night`s results showed he had been narrowly -- and unexpectedly -- knocked out of the race for the presidency of the impoverished Caribbean nation.
Instead, President Rene Preval`s handpicked protege Jude Celestin defied predictions to snap up second place and a coveted slot in January`s run-off in which he will battle a former first lady for the nation`s top job.
The singer-turned-politician, known popularly here by the nickname "Sweet Micky," said in a radio address that the international community and election observers recognized the results were "incorrect."
"I understand your anger," he told supporters in the Creole address, adding that "protesting without violence is the people`s right."
Preval meanwhile called for calm in a country still struggling to rebuild after January`s devastating earthquake, and which has a bloody history of political upheaval and dictatorships.
"Demonstrate, that is your right. But don`t attack public buildings, businesses or private property," Preval said on Haiti`s national radio, after the headquarters of his ruling INITE (UNITY) party were set ablaze Wednesday.
"You are giving Haiti a bad image. Conflicts are not resolved by setting things on fire and breaking things. Pull yourselves together, Haitians."
Demonstrations, which had rumbled through the night, turned violent in several of major cities as well as the capital Port-au-Prince.
Three young protesters were shot dead in clashes in the southern town of Cayes, some 200 kilometers (120 miles) south of the capital, former senator Gabriel Fortune told a news agency.
"One of the youths was shot in front of the election offices by Senegalese UN troops and two others were killed at the entrance to the town, where a police station was ransacked and the police had their guns stolen," he added.
"Ninety percent of the public buildings in the town have been set on fire, and a bank and private homes have been attacked by young people," he added.
A school and a radio station belonging to a candidate close to the ruling party were also targeted, he said.
A fourth person was killed in armed clashes in the second city of Cap Haitien, local media sources said.
The outbreak of violence caused officials to close the country`s airports as several major airlines cancelled their flights to and from Haiti.
Martelly has until December 20 to formally lodge a complaint with the electoral commission and the US embassy in Port-au-Prince has voiced concern at the "inconsistent" results.
EU chief diplomat Catherine Ashton has also expressed concern at "significant differences between the projected outcome of the elections... and the preliminary results released."
The singer was pushed into third place by fewer than 7,000 votes by Celestin, who will now run for the presidency on January 16 against former first lady Mirlande Manigat, officials said.
The results credited Manigat with 31 percent of the vote, Celestin with 22 percent and Martelly with 21.84 percent.
"The people came out to vote for Martelly because Manigat and Celestin are not going to sort anything out. Martelly was ahead and they have stolen the elections," one masked youth told a news agency.
"We will destroy the country until Martelly is made president," he warned.
Political turmoil only compounds Haiti`s misery.
Much of the capital still lies in ruins since the January 12 earthquake that killed 250,000 people and left 1.3 million people homeless and now living in precarious tent cities.
Ten months after one of the worst natural disaster of modern times, Haiti was also hit by the first cholera outbreak here in more than a century. The disease, which erupted in a central river valley, has now spread to the teeming capital and killed more than 2,120 people.
Whoever wins the run-off faces the daunting task of rebuilding a traumatized nation of 10 million that was the poorest in the Americas even before the earthquake.
The US embassy said Celestin`s success was "inconsistent with the published results of the National Election Observation Council (CNO)... election-day observations by official US observers... and vote counts observed around the country by numerous domestic and international observers."
The CNO, which is funded by the European Union and had more than 5,500 observers at 1,600 voting centers nationwide, had estimated on Monday that Celestin was trailing a clear third behind Martelly.