Former Haitian President Rene Preval said on Tuesday massive fraud had prevented him from winning a first-round victory in last week's election but the government had agreed to delay publishing the result while he gathered proof.
A few hours after he spoke, hundreds and possibly thousands of burned and still smoldering ballots, many cast a week ago for Preval, were found on a Port-au-Prince garbage dump, outraging Preval supporters and setting off demonstrations after nightfall.
A one-time ally of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and opposed by the wealthy elite who drove Aristide out two years ago. Preval called earlier for his supporters to continue their protests but to tear down barricades of smoking tires and rubble that had brought Port-au-Prince to a standstill.
"We are sure of having won in the first round," Preval said at his sister's hilltop home on the outskirts of the Haitian capital, where his angry supporters thronged through the streets on Monday, storming the city's top luxury hotel.
"We are convinced there was massive fraud and gross errors that affected the process," he said in his first major comments since last Tuesday's vote.
The impoverished Caribbean nation of 8.5 million has been on tenterhooks for a week amid concern that election officials were manipulating the ballot, the first since Aristide fled into exile, to force Preval into a March 19 runoff.
Results, unchanged since Monday, gave Preval 48.7 percent of the vote with 90 percent counted. He needs a simple majority to avoid a second round.
"If they publish these results as they are, we will contest them and if Lespwa (Preval's political movement) contests them, the Haitian people will contest them," Preval said.
Members of the provisional electoral council said the demonstrations and roadblocks that have afflicted Port-au-Prince since Sunday had prevented ballot workers from completing the count anyway.
Rosemond Pradel, secretary general of the council, promised an investigation after charred ballot papers were found in a large state dump in the capital.
"That's absolutely unacceptable," said Pradel.
He said securing the ballots after they had been cast was the responsibility of the 9,000-strong U.N. force trying to keep the peace in Haiti.
U.N. spokesman David Wimhurst said ballots were supposed to have been sealed in bags and placed in a container, protected by U.N. troops. "It's not normal to have these ballots there."
Wimhurst suggested the discarded ballots could have come from nine polling stations outside Port-au-Prince ransacked during the election, with the loss of around 35,000 votes.
In the district of Truitier, where the burned ballots were found, angry Preval supporters and local residents denounced what they saw as an attempt to deny them a voice in Haiti's fractious and fragile democracy.
"They took all Preval's ballots. They threw them away in order to prevent the vote of the people from passing. That is a crime," said Rene Monplaisir, an official in the Preval campaign.
While many of Preval's presidential rivals have conceded he won an easy victory, some, including third-placed industrialist Charles Baker, considered the candidate of the wealthy elite, have vowed to join forces in a second round.
Ex-President Leslie Manigat was in second place with 11.8 percent and Baker was third with 7.9 percent.
Preval said his campaign had credible evidence the vote count had been manipulated. He cited an independent tabulation by the National Democratic Institute, a U.S. nonprofit group, which showed he had carried 54 percent of the vote.