PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - The U.S. government said on Sunday it would resume military evacuation flights to the United States for badly injured Haitian earthquake victims after a four-day suspension over cost and treatment questions.
The White House said the flights were expected to begin again within 12 hours. Medical workers in Haiti had said the suspension put seriously injured patients at risk.
“Having received assurances that additional capacity exists both here and among our international partners, we determined that we can resume these critical flights,” White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said in a statement.
In another headache for U.S. officials, 10 Americans face a court hearing in Port-au-Prince on Monday after their arrest on suspicion of trafficking children.
The five men and five women from an Idaho-based charity deny wrongdoing after they were arrested trying to take 33 children to the neighboring Dominican Republic without documents proving adoptions had taken place or that the children were orphaned by the quake.
On a more positive note, food distribution to quake survivors, which has been chaotic at times in recent weeks, went more smoothly on Sunday using a coupon system that targeted women as recipients of the rations.
Nearly three weeks after the magnitude 7.0 earthquake killed up to 200,000 Haitians and left up to 1 million more homeless, a huge U.S.-led international relief operation has been struggling to help injured and hungry survivors.
Hundreds of patients have already been evacuated to the United States for treatment, most to Florida hospitals. But Florida’s governor had asked the federal government to share the burden, triggering a halt in the Medevac flights.
The White House statement on Sunday said patients were being identified for transfer, doctors were making sure it was safe for them to fly and that pediatric care was being prepared aboard the aircraft where needed.
The state of Florida is identifying hospitals to receive the patients, Vietor added.
He said Haiti’s government had estimated there were more than 200,000 injuries from the January 12 quake.
Haitian authorities have held the 10 Americans from the New Life Children’s Refuge group in custody in Port-au-Prince since their arrest late on Friday at the Malpasse border crossing with the Dominican Republic.
Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said the Americans could face serious accusation.
“We did not arrest Americans, we arrested kidnappers,” Bellerive told Reuters. “We just hope that the people were acting in good faith and that they were doing what they were doing to try to help the children.”
Laura Silsby, a leader of the Idaho group, told CNN, “The truth ultimately is that we came here to help the children, and we know that God will reveal truth.” She earlier told Reuters the group had permission from the Dominican Republic to bring the children to an orphanage there.
The children have been taken to an orphanage in Haiti run by international aid group SOS Children’s Villages.
“All these children had no papers, no passports or anything and as the children came to us they were hungry, they were thirsty and the little baby was really dehydrated,” orphanage head George Willard said.
Bellerive told CNN in an interview broadcast on Sunday that he was worried about the risk of illegal adoptions and child trafficking. “We have already reports of a lot of trafficking (of children) and even of organ trafficking,” he said, while citing no specific cases.
A coupon-based system to feed the masses of homeless earthquake victims was expanded in Port-au-Prince on Sunday.
More than 200 U.S. troops fanned out around a sprawling refugee camp in the capital’s Champs de Mars plaza at dawn for the distribution of 1,650 bags of rice.
The rice was given only to women who had received numbered coupons from relief workers who had identified those most in need in the sprawling camp, said Jacques Montouroy of the Catholic Relief Services group running the distribution.
“You have to install discipline. ... This is the only way for food to trickle down to everybody,” said Montouroy.
In recent weeks, some food handouts turned unruly and violent, with mobs of hungry, desperate quake survivors overwhelming aid workers and their U.N. peacekeeper escorts.
Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva in Port-au-Prince and Caren Bohan in Washington; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Peter Cooney