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23 February 2024

Haitians await rescuers; toll to top 100,000


Desperate Haitians awaited a global effort Thursday to find and treat survivors from an earthquake that left streets strewn with corpses and a death toll that may top 100,000.

Hundreds of thousands of homeless, injured and traumatized quake victims spent a second night on the streets and sidewalks, transforming the capital Port-au-Prince into a gigantic and under-equipped refugee camp, as Haitian officials and others grieved for their ruined city.

Schools, hospitals, hotels, ministries and the presidential palace lay in ruins and people caked in blood and dust pleaded for help as they or their loved ones lay trapped beneath mountains of concrete in a mostly destroyed Port-au-Prince, an AFP correspondent said.

Reflecting the mood of hopelessness pervading the city of two million which is thoroughly unprepared to cope with a tragedy of this magnitude, a preacher warned in Creole about the end of the world.

Jeanwell Antoine held a trapped baby's arm and sought to comfort it as he clawed through the rubble.

"It is not me who is pushing back this earth. It is the hand of God, who loves life and is guiding me so I can save this baby," he said.

With every hour crucial for those trapped, a global aid operation swung into action, with rescue teams bringing heavy lifting gear, sniffer dogs and desperately-needed medicines, food and water.

"The priority is to find survivors," Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said as the UN mobilized search and rescue teams.

"We are working against the clock," she said.

Casualty figures were impossible to calculate, but Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told CNN the final death toll from the 7.0 quake could be "well over 100,000." President Rene Preval told the network 50,000 could be dead.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who canceled an Asia trip and returned to Washington early Thursday, compared the tragedy to the Asian tsunami which killed more than 220,000 people five years ago.

"The Indian Ocean tsunami was such a terrible tragedy and with such high loss of life. This will be a very high loss of life as well," she said.

Preval, unsure of where he would sleep after his home and the presidential palace were destroyed, painted a scene of utter devastation.

"Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed," he told the Miami Herald.

In Tokyo, Haiti's charge d'affaires Jean-Claude Bordes mourned for a city he learned had been "totally destroyed" by the epic quake.

"The conversations I had (by phone) were not too long. I just heard screams. Our country is destroyed, we have nothing left. It's God will, we have to accept it," he told reporters.

With thousands of people missing, dazed survivors in torn clothes wandered through the rubble as aftershocks continued to rock Port-au-Prince.

Injured survivors were carried on makeshift stretchers past piles of smashed concrete, from which crushed bodies protruded.

The earthquake was the latest tragedy to hammer Haiti, which has been scarred by years of unrest, crime, political tumult and natural disaster.

Former US president Bill Clinton, a United Nations special envoy to Haiti, warned Thursday of an unprecedented humanitarian disaster.

"Early estimates indicate that nearly three million people -- almost a third of Haiti's population -- may need aid, making this one of the great humanitarian emergencies in the history of the Americas," Clinton said in the Washington Post.

"These people deserve a chance to bury their dead, to heal their wounded, to eat, to sleep, to begin to recover, and they can't do it with just government help alone," Clinton said, appealing on CNN for cash to buy aid.

UN officials said at least 16 of its staffers were dead, 56 were injured and a further 150 were missing. The head of the mission, Hedi Annabi, was thought to be among the dead.

US President Barack Obama vowed a swift and aggressive effort to save lives and spoke with an array of regional leaders to coordinate the aid operation.

"This tragedy seems especially cruel and incomprehensible," he said.

Officials said the first US search and rescue teams had arrived and were deploying into Port-au-Prince.

The aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson was due to arrive later Thursday.

Plane-loads of rescue teams and relief supplies were quickly dispatched from nations including Britain, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Russia and Spain.

Japan on Thursday became the latest country to assist Haiti, pledging five million dollars in emergency aid and coordinating with UN agencies to help distribute the aid.

The Red Cross launched a 10-million-dollar appeal for donations, the World Food Programme offered 15,000 tonnes of food and the World Bank said it would provide an extra 100 million dollars in aid.

Doctors Without Borders has set up tent clinics in the city to treat the thousands of wounded.

"There are hundreds of thousands of people who are sleeping in the streets because they are homeless," MSF coordinator Hans van Dillen said.

"We see open fractures, head injuries. The problem is that we can not forward people to proper surgery at this stage."

The quake turned thousands of buildings into rubble. Among them was the UN mission headquarters and a major hotel where 200 tourists were missing.

Brazil said 11 of its peacekeepers were killed. Jordan reported that three of its peacekeepers died, while eight Chinese soldiers were buried in rubble and 10 were missing, state media said.

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