Saturday, January 23, 2010

Haiti: Sea, land access improves; Two more aftershocks strike

Port-au-Prince, Haiti (Jan 22, 2010) : Sea and land access for aid deliveries to Haiti improved Thursday as the United Nations along with the United States and other countries pledged long-term assistance to rebuild the quake-shaken country.

Two aftershocks with magnitudes 4.8 and 4.9 struck nine minutes apart in the region around Port-au-Prince, sending people running on land and rocking the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier anchored offshore.

Capital residents foraged for life's essential, standing in lines for food from the US 82nd Airborne in downtown Port-au-Prince or seeking refuge in the Stade Silvio Catore, once the scene of boisterous football matches.

Nepalese peacekeepers secured the drop zone for 14,000 individual meals and 14,000 litres of water, parachuted into an outlying suburb by the US military at one of the expanding aid distribution points.

A Haitian woman trapped for eight days without food or water was extracted from death's jaws by French rescue workers, bringing to at least 122 the number of those rescued by foreign teams since the Jan 12 magnitude-7 earthquake, US officials said.

Haitian Justice Minister Paul Denis had been reported killed in the rubble of his ministry building. But the Haitian ambassador to Berlin, Jean Robert Saget, said Thursday he was only injured.

In Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross said that efforts to get aid to victims were improving, but at least one million people were homeless and "living on the streets."

In the football stadium, a few hundred people have taken up residence and even put up tents, but they remain desperate for food, even as some supplies were arriving in other parts of the city.

"We want to eat, just a little bit. We want a few sips of clean water. Is that too much to ask for?" asked Roberson Joseph, a tour operator who ferried tourists between the Dominican Republic and Haiti until the quake.

"Right now we are living from day to day, to eventually die."

With 150 planes landing daily at Port-au-Prince airport, where the capacity has been vastly expanded under US military coordination, there was heavy congestion, and "finding free slots for large aircraft is still a challenge," said the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Tensions have risen around the US military's control of the airport, and officials have greeted the news that routes for aid delivery by sea and land were opening up.

French and US divers have partially opened part of the port, opening the way for the arrival of the first ship carrying 123 metric tons of food, water and medical supplies, UN and US officials said.

On land, a humanitarian corridor protected by 150 Dominican Republic troops was opened from Santo Domingo, easing the flow of relief supplies, UN spokesman Martin Nesirky said in New York. Peruvian peacekeepers from the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) are also guarding the route.

For the first time, several bars and cafes opened in Petionville, an affluent neighbourhood that sits at a slight elevation and suffered less damage.

A supermarket reopened under the heavy guard of a private security force, surely to deter looters. In stark contrast, a large encampment of people left homeless is just steps away from the store.

A rum factory in the same neighbourhood remained closed, but Rhum Barbancourt was already for sale again from street vendors.

Several bars and cafes have reopened in Petionville.

One cafe served pizza and local Prestige beer, while a boy and his grandfather ate ice cream. The clientel slowling trickling in were generally affluent Haitians and foreigners, including many journalists, who are present in enough numbers to infuse some cash into a flat-lined economy through hotels, interpreters, drivers and money changers.

On the streets, women were selling paintings, huge canvases of city life before the quake, bursting with vibrant reds, oranges, greens and blues.

Street markets seem to be sprouting in every available space without rubble or burning garbage. Venders are selling bananas, pineapples and papayas, as well as green peppers, potatoes and even eggs, though most of the people now living on the street have no money to buy any of it.

Vehicle traffic, too, continues to build, though waits for fuel sometimes last half a day.

In some spots in feels like normal life, until the next aftershock.

The death toll of MINUSTAH troops and staff rose to 61, the worst losses ever for a UN mission. Another 180 troops and staff remain unaccounted.

US Air Force Commander Buck Elton, who heads the air operations in Haiti, headed off growing complaints by non-US aid groups that they have been shut out of the Port-au-Prince airport.

The French group Doctors Without Borders in particular had voiced frustration over being forced to divert to the Dominican Republic on Sunday despite its approved place in the landing scheme.

Speaking by telephone from Haiti, Elton said that the landing plan was divided with one-third each for international aid, US civilian aid and US military aircraft. Elton said the French plane in question had been scheduled to land at 3 pm Sunday, was diverted, and then came back and landed at 8 pm.

Elton said there are sometimes long delays on the ground, which force a diversion, caused by aircraft waiting for evacuees to arrive, or broken machinery. The airport, which in the pre-earthquake days handled 15 fixed-wing aircraft and 20 helicopters a day, is now handling 10 times that volume.

There had been reports that the US military was physically preventing Haitians from leaving the port, which US officials denied.

"The US government and the Haitian government have been advising Haitians not to try to cross from Haiti to the US ... in very unsafe craft in very rough seas," said Gordon Duguid, US State Department spokesman in Haiti.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the international community will continue its relief efforts, while planning to move to an early phase of recovery and reconstruction programmes in the impoverished nation. He met with US former president Bill Clinton, who is the UN special envoy for Haiti, to discuss the next phase after the humanitarian operation.

Clinton, who teamed up with US former president George W Bush to encourate private donations in the United States, said he would earmark some of the money raised to go to the reconstruction in Haiti. -- dpa


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