Haiti aid relief steps up gear as US troops pour in

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Jan 19, 2010 (AFP) - US troops fanned out across the ruined Haitian capital Tuesday as the military ramped up a huge aid operation with tensions mounting on the streets a week after the catastrophic quake.

A US Blackhawak helicopter hovers over a landing zone at the airport in Port-au-Prince on January, 19, 2010. (AFP photo)

Camped out under makeshift tents among the rubble of buildings flattened by last Tuesday's devastating 7.0 magnitude quake, desperate survivors were hunting for food as international aid finally began flowing.

The Haitian government said 75,000 people had been killed in the quake, with another 250,000 injured and more than a million left homeless.

While the full scale of the disaster remains unclear, extraordinary stories of children and adults surviving under collapsed buildings provided rare glimmers of hope.

In one, dubbed "a miracle" by rescuers, Mexican firefighters pulled an elderly woman alive from the ruins of Haiti's Roman Catholic cathedral.

But on the streets, tensions are running high between local police and many people as looting has become a survival strategy.

"Look, when you are hungry and poor, nobody helps, you have to steal," a defiant young man named Vicent said, as people plunged into the ruins of a flattened supermarket in the hope of finding food or something to sell.

On Tuesday, US paratroopers descended from helicopters to secure the presidential palace, a once elegant white building in Port-au-Prince now in ruins and surrounded by a squalid refugee camp.

From there, a 100-strong squad of soldiers marched to the city's general hospital, which is swamped with injured people.

"We are here to provide security to the hospital. We work with the government of Haiti. We have rules of engagement, but we are on a humanitarian mission," Sergeant Bill Smith told AFP.

In a multi-pronged operation, US Marines also landed southwest of the capital Port-au-Prince to link up with UN peacekeepers and assess conditions to start moving in more troops and equipment.

State Department spokesman Gordon Duguid said there were 12,000 troops in or around Haiti, and about 2,200 Marines and sailors are also expected to take part in the relief operation.

The military arrival at the presidential palace was not welcomed by all of the 50,000 destitute refugees camping outside. "It's an occupation. The palace is our power, our face, our pride," said Feodor Desanges.

But Duguid stressed: "Our troops are here at the invitation of the people in the name of your president. As soon as the Haitian people no longer need our presence, we will leave."

Amid reports of sporadic looting, the UN Security Council voted unanimously to send 3,500 extra UN troops and police to Haiti to help maintain order and protect aid convoys.

Relatives told AFP that Haitian police killed a 15-year-old girl, Fabienne Cherisma, while firing warning shots over looters in the capital.

Some witnesses in the angry crowd, including the girl's father, said a policeman had aimed deliberately at the girl, while others spoke of a warning shot that went astray.

In one extraordinary survival story, Anna Zizi, aged 69 or 70, was pulled from rubble at about 3:30 pm, two hours short of a full week after the quake struck.

"It seems rescuers were communicating with her and managing to get water to her through a tube. She was singing when she emerged," said Sarah Wilson, of British charity Christian Aid.

But with hopes of finding more survivors fading, the deputy commander of the military operation in Haiti said US forces would soon switch the focus of the operation to recovering bodies.

"We fully expect that we will transition very soon from the search phase to the recovery phase, and obviously we continue to be in prayer," said Major General Daniel Allyn.

Allyn said there were now around 200 daily flights at the capital's damaged airport, and that two additional airstrips, in the coastal city of Jacmel and in San Isidro in neighboring Dominican Republic, would be in use by Thursday.

In a huge global effort, more than 1.2 billion dollars has been pledged in aid funding for Haiti, United Nations data showed Tuesday.

International efforts are also focusing on rebuilding the country, with a major donor conference set for Monday in Montreal.

Meanwhile, in a surreal scene, the giant 3,600-berth cruise ship Liberty of the Seas dropped anchor off the port of Labadee where Royal Caribbean International leases a private resort with beautiful beaches.

The company, which has donated one million dollars to the Haiti relief effort, defended its decision to keep taking passengers there by saying it was important to keep supporting the Haitian economy.

Source: AFP

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