PORT-AU-PRINCE (AFP) – Haiti's ruling party bowed to weeks of US-led pressure Wednesday and pulled its candidate out of the presidential run-off after he was found to have benefited from widespread fraud.
"Even though we are certain Jude Celestin received the necessary number of votes and was therefore through to the second round, INITE (Unity) has agreed to withdraw his candidacy for the presidency," a party statement said.
There was no immediate confirmation from Celestin himself, and one source said he was refusing to sign the necessary documentation and threatening to hold a press conference to deny the move.
The United States has led warnings that Haiti -- still emerging from decades of political upheaval, dictatorship and bloodshed -- must install a credible government or risk losing international support.
The impoverished Caribbean country is still struggling to recover from a devastating January 2010 earthquake, and is dependent on international aid to feed its 10 million people.
According to preliminary results from the November 28 first round poll, Celestin garnered 7,000 more votes than popular singer Michel Martelly, securing a place in a run-off against former first lady Mirlande Manigat.
Within hours of the announcement, protests swept Haitian towns, leaving five dead and the country in crisis as opposition candidates accused President Rene Preval and the electoral commission of rigging the poll.
A team of international monitors called in by Preval found widespread vote tampering and fraud in Celestin's favor and recommended he should withdraw from the race and leave the field clear for a Martelly-Manigat battle.
The second round, originally scheduled for January 16, has been indefinitely postponed, even though Preval is due to step down in early February and hand over leadership of the poorest country in the Americas.
Political tensions have been furthered heightened by the surprise return earlier this month of ousted dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier after 25 years in exile, mostly in France.
Duvalier has been charged by Haitian prosecutors with corruption, embezzlement of millions of dollars from state funds and criminal association during his repressive 1971-1986 rule.
Four individual lawsuits alleging torture, forced exile and crimes against humanity have also been lodged against the former strongman, whose political motivations, if any, remain unclear.
In the past week, the United States has led intensified efforts to force a resolution to Haiti's political impasse.
Top diplomats from the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and France met with election officials on Monday to press them to accept international monitors' recommendations.
And last week, Washington revoked the visas of an unspecified number of officials. Haitian media reports said the move was against nine or 10 members of Celestin's party.
Susan Rice, the US ambassador to the United Nations, had earlier warned Haiti to carry out the recommendations of Organization of American States (OAS) monitors and establish a legitimate government or risk losing goodwill.
Hours before Wednesday's ruling party statement, US senators called for a democratic solution to the crisis in a symbolic resolution urging that a legitimate new government take office on February 7 or soon after.
The measure, crafted by both senators from the state of Florida -- Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio -- reaffirmed US support for the long-term reconstruction of Haiti.