January 19, 2010 / 12:47 AM / 8 years ago

U.S. troops deploy as Haiti aid operation picks up

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - U.S. Black Hawk helicopters swooped down on Haiti’s wrecked presidential palace to deploy troops and supplies on Tuesday as a huge international relief operation to help earthquake survivors gained momentum.

The airborne troops in combat gear moved to secure Port-au-Prince’s nearby General Hospital, where staff have been overwhelmed by patients seriously injured in the 7.0 magnitude that destroyed much of Haiti’s capital one week ago.

Their arrival brought crowds of quake survivors camped out in the park opposite the palace rushing to its iron railings to gawk and beg for handouts of food.

It was one of the most visible and potentially sensitive deployments so far by the U.S. military, which is spearheading international efforts to assist millions of injured and homeless Haitians.

At least one Latin American leader, Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez, a fiery critic of what he calls U.S. “imperialism,” has already accused Washington of “occupying” Haiti under the pretext of an aid operation.

The commander of the U.S. troops in Haiti, Lieutenant General Ken Keen, said their primary purpose was humanitarian assistance and providing food and water to Haitians. But, he told CNN at the hospital protected by his men, “Security goes hand-in-hand with our mission.”

Watching the soldiers, quake survivor Gille Frantz said: “We know the world wants to help us, but it has been eight days now and I have not seen any food or water for my family.”

In a bid to speed the arrival of aid and stem looting and violence, the U.N. Security Council unanimously agreed to temporarily add 2,000 U.N. troops and 1,500 police to the 9,000-member peacekeeping mission in Haiti.

More than 11,000 U.S. military personnel are on the ground, on ships offshore or en route. Haitian President Rene Preval has said U.S. troops will help U.N. peacekeepers keep order.

Soldiers spread out to other ravaged towns outside the capital, to Leogane to the west and Jacmel on the southern coast, to guard and supply aid distribution points there.

Troops were working to reopen the shattered seaport in Port-au-Prince so fuel and supplies could be brought in by ship. They also planned to open additional airbridges, using a runway at Jacmel and the San Isidro air base in the neighboring Dominican Republic.

Doctors Without Borders said that its cargo plane with 12 tons of medical supplies had been turned away from the congested Port-au-Prince airport three times since Sunday, and five patients died for lack of the supplies it carried.

“We were forced to buy a saw in the market to continue amputations,” said Loris de Filippi, emergency coordinator for the group’s Choscal Hospital in Cite Soleil.

‘GOD‘S HAND’

Haitian officials say the death toll from the quake was likely to be between 100,000 and 200,000, and that 75,000 bodies had already been buried in mass graves.

Some 52 rescue teams from around the world raced against time to find people still alive under collapsed buildings. They have saved around 90 people, including an elderly woman pulled out on Tuesday from the rubble around the National Cathedral.

“I felt her grab my hand and squeeze. I felt as if God were squeezing my hand,” said an emotional Javier Vazquez, the rescue crew member from Mexico who reached her.

As the United States and United Nations deploy more troops to secure the relief operation, hundreds of looters have been swarming damaged stores in downtown Port-au-Prince, seizing goods and fighting among themselves.

Haiti’s Police Chief Mario Andresol said his depleted force needs the help of U.N. peacekeepers because more than 4,000 criminals escaped from damaged prisons.

A boy watches as U.S. soldiers from the 82nd Airborne land with Sea Hawk helicopters at the garden of the damaged Presidential Palace in Port-au-Prince January 19, 2010. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

“Yesterday downtown the looters simply outnumbered my guys. They could not control them,” Andresol told Reuters.

“It will be very difficult to get the bad guys back into jail,” he said. “That is why we need outside help.”

U.N. relief officials said the violence had not hampered distribution of food rations to 270,000 Haitians so far.

“The situation is tense but calm. Of course there are lootings because the population is on edge,” Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said in Geneva.

THREAT OF DISEASE

Medical teams pouring into Port-au-Prince to set up mobile hospitals warned of the immediate threats of tetanus and gangrene as well as the spread of measles, meningitis and other infections in a nation where AIDS, tuberculosis, malaria and malnourishment were already rampant.

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The World Health Organization said at least 13 hospitals were working in the Port-au-Prince area and it was bringing in medical supplies to treat 120,000 people over the next month.

“We are not past the emergency phase yet, but we are starting to look at the long term,” said Margaret Aguirre of the International Medical Corps, whose staff had helped with 150 amputations so far.

Under the protection of U.S. troops, food and water and other emergency supplies have begun arriving more regularly at the U.S.-run airfield in Port-au-Prince.

The World Food Program said 270,000 people had received emergency food assistance by Monday night.

“We are looking at having 10 million ready-to-eat rations going out in the course of the coming week,” WFP spokeswoman Emilia Casella said in Geneva. That would feed half a million people three times a day for a week.

Fuel prices have doubled, and there were long queues outside gas stations, where cars, motorbikes and people with jerrycans have lined up. Haitian police stood guard at some.

SOME SIGNS OF LIFE RETURNING

One sign of the return to normality was the emergence of street vendors selling fruit, vegetables and charcoal, though tens of thousands of survivors still clamored for help.

“It’s astonishing what the Haitians have been able to accomplish, performing surgeries at night ... with no anesthesia, using vodka to sterilize equipment,” U.S. President Bill Clinton, the U.N. Special Envoy to Haiti, said on Monday after touring a hospital where supplies were very tight.

World leaders have promised massive assistance to rebuild Haiti and Preval appealed to donors to focus not just on immediate aid for Haitians but also on long-term development of the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere.

Dominican President Leonel Fernandez proposed the creation of a $2 billion-a-year fund to finance Haiti’s recovery over five years.

The United States agreed to take in Haitian orphans who are being adopted by U.S. citizens and are legally confirmed as eligible for adoption abroad by Haiti.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s handling of the Haitian crisis won the approval of 80 percent of Americans polled by CBS News and may have helped a rise in his overall job approval rating to 50 percent from an all-time low of 46 percent last week, CBS said.

Additional reporting by Carlos Barria, Andrew Cawthorne, Catherine Bremer in Port-au-Prince, Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva, writing by Anthony Boadle and Jane Sutton, editing by Chris Wilson and Jackie Frank

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