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Gunfire disrupts Haiti presidential rally on eve of elections

Gunmen disrupted the final campaign rally in Haiti of a charismatic presidential contender, stoking tensions on the eve of Sunday's elections in a nation racked by cholera and political uncertainty.

Supporters of popular musician Michel (Sweet Micky) Martelly ran in panic, along with the candidate and his family, when bursts of gunfire interrupted his rally in the southern city of Les Cayes late on Friday, his campaign and witnesses said.

Local media reported at least one person was killed and several wounded in the latest violence to blight the turbulent run-up to the presidential and legislative elections in the poor earthquake-ravaged Caribbean nation.

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A United Nations police spokesman told Reuters the incident was being investigated but said he did not have confirmed casualty details.

"Michel was walking in the middle of an immense crowd ... when a burst of automatic weapon fire was directed at the group," Mr. Martelly's wife Sophia told Le Nouvelliste newspaper.

Mr. Martelly's campaign aide Antonio Sola told Reuters the candidate, who was not hurt, was rushed to his bullet-proof vehicle where he donned a bullet-proof vest.

The entertainer, a star of Haiti's Kompa dance music, is one of several frontrunners in a varied field of 18 presidential candidates. The open race makes it very likely the contest will have to go to a deciding run-off in January.

Sunday's vote in the Western Hemisphere's poorest state faces daunting security, health and organizational challenges, not least a raging cholera epidemic that has killed some 2,000 people and is worsening, according to United Nations experts.

Amid the sporadic violence, a staple of Haiti's volatile politics, confusion also appeared among many of the 4 million registered voters over where they should cast ballots in a country still recovering from a massive earthquake in January.

Some of the violence has been directed at UN Nepalese peacekeepers, whom protesters blame for bringing cholera to Haiti. The United Nations says no conclusive evidence supports this.

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Haiti's government, the UN peacekeeping mission and international observers all argue it is better for the election to go ahead as scheduled - despite the many challenges - than to risk a chaotic political vacuum by postponing it.

Other presidential frontrunners are 70-year-old opposition matriarch Mirlande Manigat, a former first lady who some polls have leading the race, and 48-year-old government technocrat Jude Celestin, a protégé of outgoing President Rene Preval.

Accusations of fraud and violence - most directed against Mr. Celestin and Mr. Preval's Inite (Unity) platform - have been flying. Mr. Martelly's campaign blamed Inite supporters for the Les Cayes shooting.

The government and UN officials have appealed for calm.

Besides choosing a successor to Mr. Preval, who cannot stand again after serving two terms, Sunday's vote will elect a 99-member parliament and a third of the Senate.

With many Haitians struggling to just get by and fearful of the cholera epidemic, apathy could lower the turnout.

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"I won't vote. I don't believe in these elections. They will bring no benefit," said Joseph Berthony, 49, an unemployed teacher living in a sprawling earthquake survivors' settlement on Port-au-Prince's northern outskirts.

Some 1.3 million people made homeless by the Jan. 12 earthquake live in crowded tent and tarpaulin camps in and around the capital and there are doubts as to how many have been able to renew national identity cards to be able to vote.

Troops from the 12,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti, which will help local police to protect the polls, were escorting convoys delivering ballot papers to more than 11,000 polling stations around the country.

Electoral observers and experts from the Organization of American States, the Caribbean Community, the association of Francophone states, the European Union and several European countries are in Haiti to observe and support the elections.

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