Thousands feared killed as massive quake hits Haiti (Fourth Lead)

January 14th, 2010 - 12:17 am ICT by IANS  

Barack Obama Port-au-Prince/Washington, Jan 13 (DPA) Haitian President Rene Preval said Wednesday that thousands may have been killed in the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that rattled his country and issued an appeal for aid to his impoverished nation.
The deaths and extent of damage in Port-au-Prince, the city of 1.9 million, were difficult to determine after Tuesday’s violent quake, but the United Nations and aid agencies have said hundreds were likely killed. Many survivors were believed to still be stuck in rubble, and the Red Cross said up to three million people might require humanitarian assistance across Haiti.

The 7.0 magnitude quake is the region’s worst in a century, the US Geological Survey said.

In an interview with the Miami Herald, his first since the quake, Preval did not provide an official casualty toll. “We have to do an evaluation,” Preval told the paper.

He said he had had to step over dead bodies and could hear the cries of trapped citizens, including under the national parliament building.

“Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed,” he said. “There are a lot of schools that have a lot of dead people in them.”

“All of the hospitals are packed with people. It is a catastrophe,” he said.

Among the buildings destroyed were the UN headquarters on the island, the presidential palace and numerous government buildings and hotels housing western tourists.

Offers of aid had poured in from around the world.

US President Barack Obama said in Washington Wednesday the US will respond swiftly to assist the people of Haiti, calling the devastation that struck the Caribbean nation “truly heart wrenching”.

The US military has already conducted overflights to determine the extent of the damage and assistance and rescue team were preparing to deploy to Haiti, Obama said.

The US government was also trying to account for US personnel at the embassy in Port-au-Prince and other American citizens in the country, Obama said.

Raymond Alcide Joseph, Haitian ambassador to the US, said at a press conference in Washington that First Lady Elisabeth Debrosse Delatour had requested the global community to send hospital ships - given the precarious health infrastructure - and well-equipped first responders to come in with dogs to search for the living and the dead under the debris.

The US Agency for International Development said up to 72 people, six search and rescue dogs and 42 tonnes of equipment were on the way.

The country is home to the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) of 7,000 troops and 2,000 police along with 500 foreign civilians and 1,200 local employees. More than 100 UN staff in the poor Caribbean nation remained unaccounted for.

Several hospitals were reportedly “taken completely out of commission,” Paul Conneally with the International Federation of Red Cross Societies in Geneva, said, while “others are overwhelmed and turning people away”.

Hospitals in the neighbouring Dominican Republic were bracing Wednesday to receive hundreds of injured Haitians.

“The immediate need is to rescue people trapped in the rubble, then to get people food and water. We’re particularly worried about the children, because so many schools seem to have collapsed,” said Sophie Perez with the humanitarian aid group CARE.

“Children were still in school in the afternoon when the earthquake hit, so there are many children trapped. It’s horrifying,” the aid worker said.

Perez was in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince when the earthquake hit, working on aid projects for the poor and underdeveloped island nation that has seen both conflicts and extreme natural disasters in recent years.

“It was terrifying. It lasted for more than a minute. The whole building was shaking. People were screaming, crying,” she said.

Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, making rescue efforts even more difficult due to the poor existing infrastructure. Telephone networks had reportedly collapsed, with fires in the capital Port-au-Prince witnessed, probably from collapsed gas pipes.

The quake struck at 4.53 p.m. (2153 GMT) Tuesday, some 15 km southwest of the city at a depth of 10 kilometres. More 25 aftershocks have been recorded since the initial tremblor.

France, the former colonial power, announced Wednesday it was immediately sending two planes, humanitarian aid and around 60 rescue workers.

Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva ordered $10 million in aid and food be sent and spoke of fears over the situation of both the Haitian people and the over 1,000 Brazilians who are active in the troubled nation as part of a UN mission.

At least four members of the Brazilian military were killed and five others were injured, the army said in Brasilia.

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