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29 February 2024

Haiti death toll tops 200,000 as aid anger mounts

The death toll in the Haiti quake has swelled to 200,000, Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said Wednesday as angry protests over the slow arrival of aid flared on the rubble-strewn streets.

More than three weeks after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake, Bellerive said his tiny Caribbean nation had been ravaged by "a disaster on a planetary scale" and detailed the tragic toll suffered by his people.

"There are more than 200,000 people who have been clearly identified as people who are dead," he said in an interview with AFP, adding that another 300,000 injured had been treated, 250,000 homes had been destroyed and 30,000 businesses lost.

At least 4,000 amputations have also been carried out due to horrific crush injuries -- a shocking figure which is likely to strain the impoverished nation's already meager resources for years to come.

Bellerive said he has proposed the formation of an "emergency government" in Haiti to focus on the crisis, but insisted that the authorities, devastated as their ranks have been by the disaster, remained "in control of the situation."

Despite a massive aid operation, a lack of coordination and the sheer extent of the damage have hampered the distribution of food and water leading to mounting tensions among a million people left homeless.

"The Haitian government has done nothing for us, it has not given us any work. It has not given us the food we need," Sandrac Baptiste said bitterly as she left her makeshift tent to join angry demonstrations Wednesday.

With tensions running high in the ruined capital Port-au-Prince, some 300 people gathered outside the mayor's office in the once upscale Petionville neighborhood.

"If the police fire on us, we are going to set things ablaze," one of the protesters shouted, raising a cement block above his head.

Another 200 protesters marched toward the US embassy, crying out for food and aid.

The US has taken the lead in the huge relief effort, with some 20,000 troops, but on Wednesday a senior official at the US Agency for International Development faced tough questioning about Haitians livid over the pace of aid.

"It is natural that they feel like that after a catastrophe of this magnitude," USAID deputy director Anthony Chan told reporters. "We are doing the best that can be expected."

But aid agencies have sounded the alarm that donations for Haiti relief have been desperately low compared to after the 2004 Asian tsunami, which had a death toll of about 220,000.

The head of the French Red Cross, Jean-Francois Mattei, said on a mission here that the organization has received 11.5 million euros (16 million dollars) for Haiti, one tenth the amount it received for tsunami relief.

And while the international Red Cross raised three billion dollars in relief in the tsunami's aftermath, the figure for Haiti stands at just 555 million dollars in the aftermath of the worst natural disaster on record in the Americas.

Mattei said a "media controversy" over the use of tsunami relief funds had made some potential donors wary of giving, adding: "It is not surprising to see the decline in donations."

Meanwhile, a group of US missionaries were to learn Thursday whether they would be charged with trying to illegally take children out of Haiti, a judge told AFP.

The 10 Americans from the Idaho-based Baptist group New Life Children's Refuge have been detained in Haiti since the weekend after they tried to take some 33 children to neighboring Dominican Republic.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Wednesday it was "unfortunate" that "this group of Americans took matters into their own hands" by trying to take the children across the border without proper documentation.

"We are engaged in discussions with the Haitian government... and looking for the best way forward on this," she added.

The case has cast a spotlight on the plight of Haiti's hundreds of thousands of orphans, and how they face the very real threat of falling victim to child-traffickers taking advantage of the post-quake chaos.

Amid the mounting frustration in Haiti's streets, UN chief Ban Ki-moon asked former US president Bill Clinton to assume a leadership role in coordinating the international aid.

"The trick is to get the Haitian people back where they can stop living from day-to-day and start living from week-to-week or month-to-month and then start the long-term efforts," Bill Clinton said.

A British aid umbrella group, Disaster Emergency Committee, warned Wednesday against "quick-fix rebuilding" plans, saying in-depth studies were needed on how to best protect Haiti from future hurricanes and earthquakes before a massive reconstruction project is launched.