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PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Armed Haitian police kept apart boisterous supporters of rival presidential candidates in Port-au-Prince on Thursday as the earthquake-hit Caribbean country heads for turbulent elections this weekend in the grip of a cholera epidemic.
Sporadic violence, including street clashes between protesters and U.N. peacekeepers in Port-au-Prince and the northern city of Cap-Haitien, has added the stench of burning tires and tear gas to the stink of squalor and disease from overflowing cholera hospitals and earthquake survivor camps.
Separate marches by backers of two leading presidential contenders -- Jude Celestin, a protege of outgoing President Rene Preval, and popular musician "Sweet Micky" Martelly -- clogged streets in the sprawling capital on Thursday but police armed with shotguns and pistols stopped them from clashing.
Sunday's presidential and legislative elections are going ahead despite the huge challenges of holding a nationwide poll in the Western Hemisphere's poorest state.
Haiti, its infrastructure already weak, is recovering from a devastating earthquake in January and battling a worsening cholera epidemic that has already killed 2,000 people.
The international community, represented by a 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in Haiti, is insisting the political and security risks of postponing Sunday's elections are far greater than any current threats of violence or disruption.
"It is better to have elections as soon as possible than to delay them," Edmond Mulet, the head of the U.N. mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), told a news conference in Port-au-Prince.
"If we don't have elections now, when? ... Are we going to wait a year in Haiti to have elections? What will happen in the meantime? Vacuum of power, uncertainty, chaos?"
Mulet said the polls, to elect a successor to Preval who cannot stand again, a new parliament and a third of the Senate, were in line with Haiti's constitutional electoral calendar.
Voting would pose no greater health risk, and perhaps even less, than a normal working day, he said.
Mulet brushed aside calls for postponement from four of the 18 presidential candidates and complaints of pro-government bias against local electoral authorities, saying the latter had showed themselves "up to the task".
"The elections will not be perfect, will not solve all the problems, but they are a necessary path in the democratization process in Haiti," the U.N. mission chief said, flanked by the heads of MINUSTAH's military and police forces.
With several frontrunners leading the varied field -- one of the original 19 contenders has withdrawn -- analysts see a strong chance that Sunday's first-round ballot may not produce a clear winner with the required majority of more than 50 percent of the votes.
This would mean a deciding run-off on January 16.
Besides Celestin and Martelly, another presidential frontrunner identified by opinion polls is Mirlande Manigat, a 70-year-old former first lady who would be Haiti's first elected woman president if she wins the vote.
The rival marches by Celestin and Martelly supporters, accompanied by bands and sound trucks blaring music, went ahead in rubble-strewn streets festooned with election posters and choked with traffic and pedestrians.
"Martelly, it's you we were looking for. Now we have found you, we are saved!" sang his supporters, many of whom swept streets with brooms to reflect his pro-change message. A big group of motorcycle riders accompanied them, tooting horns.
As several thousand Celestin supporters wearing T-shirts in his green-and-yellow party colors danced and sang, two small planes overhead towed banners reading "Vote for Jude Celestin." One dropped leaflets with his image.
Outside the Justice Ministry, hundreds of women yelling "Down with injustice" staged a protest sit-in to demand better judicial protection against sexual violence. Since the January 12 earthquake left more than 1.3 million people homeless, reports of rapes in survivors' camps have increased.
Fears of political violence rose after anti-U.N. riots in Cap-Haitien last week killed two people and injured dozens as tire-burning, stone-throwing protesters blamed Nepalese U.N. peacekeepers for bringing cholera to Haiti. The U.N. says no conclusive evidence supports this accusation.
There have been smaller protests in Port-au-Prince and two people were killed in a clash on Monday between supporters of two rival presidential contenders at Beaumont in the southwest of the country.
Mulet said levels of violence, a staple of Haiti's volatile politics, were less than in the 2006 presidential elections.
In Port-au-Prince's squalid slums and crowded earthquake survivors' camps, views of the elections were mixed. Low turnout may be the biggest protagonist in Sunday's polls.
"There's no presidential palace, there's no country, everyone's sleeping outside. Why have elections?" said Wilner Hauteau, an unemployed artisan.
But others said they would vote to select new leaders to tackle Haiti's huge problems of poverty and underdevelopment, compounded by the earthquake and the cholera epidemic.
"I don't know what will happen but I'm going to vote to try to change things," said Etienne Adeline, 56, who lives in a tarpaulin shelter in one hillside survivors' settlement.
Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva and Allyn Gaestel; Editing by John O'Callaghan