The UN Security Council has pledged to support Haiti's government amid growing anger across the country over the cost of basic foodstuffs.
Hedi Annabi, UN envoy, said on Tuesday after briefing the council: "I think we have made progress in stabilising the country, but that progress is extremely fragile, highly reversible, and made even more fragile by the current socio-economic environment."
Annabi said that the current unrest appeared "to have a political dimension, in addition to expressing mounting frustration about the rising cost of basic food commodities".
Outnumbered UN peacekeepers watched as people looted businesses near the presidential palace, not budging from the building's perimeter.
Nearby, but out of sight of the authorities, another group swarmed a slow-moving car and tried to drag its female driver out of the window.
"We are hungry! He must go!" protesters shouted as they tried to break into the palace by charging its chained gates with a rolling dumpster.
|Global food price falls are having a devastating |
affect on the impoverished nation [EPA]
Moments later, Brazilian soldiers in blue UN helmets arrived in Jeeps with assault vehicles, firing rubber bullets and tear gas canisters and forcing protesters away from the gates.
Haiti, home to 8.5 million people, is the poorest country in the Americas.
Eighty per cent of its population earns less than $2 a day, below the UN-established poverty rate.
Global food price rises, up almost 40 per cent on average since mid-2007, are causing havoc in Haiti.
The most desperate Haitians have come to depend on a traditional hunger palliative of cookies made of dirt, vegetable oil and salt.
Riots broke out in the normally placid southern port of Les Cayes last week, quickly escalating as protesters tried to burn down a UN compound leaving five people dead.
The protests spread to other cities, and on Monday tens of thousands took to the streets of Port-au-Prince.
Aides said the president, who has made no public statements since the riots began, continued to work in the palace during the protests.
Patrick Elie, an adviser to Preval, said: "I compare this situation to having a bucket full of gasoline and having some people around with a box of matches.
"As long as the two have a possibility to meet, you're going to have trouble."
Blaming the UN
As well as calling for the president's removal, protesters are demanding the departure of the 9,000 UN peacekeepers, whom they blame in part for the cost of living.
|"I compare this situation to having a bucket full of gasoline and having some people around with a box of matches" |
The peacekeepers came to Haiti in 2004 to quell the chaos that followed the removal of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the country's former president.
While the peacekeepers spend more than $500m a year in Haiti, the UN World Food Programme (WFP) has collected less than 15 per cent of the $96m it says Haiti needs in donations this year.
The WFP issued an emergency appeal on Monday for more donations.
Meanwhile, new customs procedures aimed at collecting revenues and stopping the flow of drugs has left tons of food rotting in ports, especially in the country's north.
In a country where almost all food is imported, cargo traffic from Miami in the US ground nearly to a halt.
Shippers, however, say intervention by Preval last month has improved the situation somewhat.
Government officials say the riots are being manipulated by outside forces, specifically drug smugglers who can operate more easily amid chaos.
In particular, they blame Guy Philippe, a fugitive rebel leader wanted in US federal court in connection with a drug indictment.
Many in the crowds are demanding the return of the exiled Aristide, and thousands showed up on Monday for a rally by a key Aristide ally, Gerard Jean-Juste, a reverend, in the seaside slum of Cite Soleil.