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Haiti Vote Count Stops Amid Fraud Probe

Haitian election officials have stopped the vote counting from last week's national elections, after thousands of burned ballots were found in a trash heap outside Port-au-Prince. For three days, demonstrations have paralyzed the capital city, with supporters for leading candidate Rene Preval demanding he be named president.

Thousands of election ballots smoldered on a trash heap on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince just hours after presidential front-runner Rene Preval declared that he was sure that major fraud had marred Haiti's February 7 vote.

With more than 90 percent of the ballots counted, Preval has just under 50 percent of the vote. But he needs a majority to win the election outright, without going to a second-round runoff. As the vote count has proceeded since last week's election, Preval's lead has been in steady decline, from 61 percent 49 percent.

In a press conference Tuesday, Preval said he was sure that massive fraud probably marred the election, and that he intends to protest if the final results show that he did not win the presidency.

Preval says if the results are published in their actual state, his Lespwa party is going to contest them and the people will as well.

Preval was president from 1996-2001, and is seen as a close ally of exiled president Jean Bertrand Aristide, who fled Haiti two years ago following a violent uprising. Preval commands widespread support among Haiti's poor masses and has encouraged the masses to continue demonstrating, but Tuesday he stressed demonstrations should be non-violent.

Just hours later, angry voters rifled through a trash heap with thousands of smoldering ballots, many of them apparently were cast for Preval. The images were broadcast on national television late Tuesday.

Thousands of demonstrators filled the streets into the night and again early this morning, blocking roads and brandishing burned ballots. Demonstrating in front of the electoral council, protesters are demanding the resignation of council president Jacques Bernard.

The United Nations, which supervised the election and was responsible for the transport of the ballots, has not offered an official explanation, but some officials speculate the ballots may have come from nine voting centers that were ransacked on election day. They estimate nearly 35,000 ballots were lost.

The Haitian government has suspended further counting of the votes, and has said it is launching an investigation.