Page last updated at 15:37 GMT, Friday, 22 January 2010

Haiti police appeal for help over escaped prisoners

People queue for food in Cite Soleil, 19 Jan
Many people in Cite Soleil are in need of water and food

A police chief in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, has appealed for help to tackle criminals who escaped when the earthquake wrecked the main jail.

Insp Aristide Rosemont, of the Cite Soleil slum area, told the BBC a large number of gangs had begun robbing and looting since the prison escape.

Correspondents say security fears have slowed aid distribution in some areas.

But despite problems in Cite Soleil, UN officials say the capital is largely calm, with only sporadic violence.

Christian Fraser
Christian Fraser, BBC News, Jacmel
The aid operation is finally beginning to reach the more remote parts of Haiti. Until recent days, the town of Jacmel had been largely isolated, with roads impassable and the focus of the operation fixed mainly on Port-au-Prince.

In Jacmel, the football stadium is home to some 6,000 people. The field is a sea of plastic sheeting. One in three buildings in this old colonial town is in ruins; all will need to be demolished. At the hospital the injured are lying in the garden waiting for painkillers, doctors and some glimpse of salvation. But it is slow to come.

In the past few days, though, the joint task force has opened the airfield and is flying continuous shuttles from Port-au-Prince, relieving the pressure. But the needs here are great, as indeed they are across the rest of the country.

There was at least one further strong aftershock on Friday, but no reports of resulting damage, injury or panic.

The US ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Merten, told US broadcaster PBS that "people should be aware that the vast majority of Haitians here are behaving in a calm and peaceful manner".

However, an adviser for the UN children's fund Unicef raised concerns about possible child trafficking, which he said had been a problem before the earthquake.

"We have documented let's say around 15 cases of children disappearing from hospitals and not with their own family at the time," said Jean Luc Legrand. Unicef's headquarters in Geneva has not confirmed this report.

Hardened offenders

About 5,000 prisoners broke out of the capital's main jail after the walls collapsed.

The BBC's Mark Doyle in Port-au-Prince says several hundred of those on the run are thought to be hardened offenders belonging to Haiti's violent and sometimes powerful criminal gangs.

Insp Rosemont said that since the mass escape, the gangs had been looting and stealing in Cite Soleil - historically a troubled area.

Local people confirm this and women say they have been raped by gang members, our correspondent reports.

"They are armed - with M-14s, with 65s and hand-guns," Insp Rosemont said.

"We were expecting the arrival of equipment to reinforce us. I need all types of help from the international community."


Our correspondent adds that his plea is clearly aimed at the US troops who have just arrived in Haiti and the UN forces that have been stationed in the country for several years.

Efforts to get relief supplies to the millions in need in Haiti continue, as search and rescue operations are scaled back.

An estimated 1.5 million people were left homeless by the 7.0-magnitude quake, which some have estimated has killed as many as 200,000 people.

Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told AFP news agency that some search and rescue teams were now starting to leave, as hopes of finding survivors fade.

Those that remain "are concentrating more and more on humanitarian aid for those who need it", she said.

Some 122 people have been saved by international search and rescue teams, according to the US government.

International efforts to get aid to Haitians continue

At least 75,000 bodies have so far been buried in mass graves, Haiti's government has said. Many more remain uncollected in the streets.

Normal life is showing some signs of returning, with small grocery shops, barbers' and pharmacies reopening in Port-au-Prince. Some banks are expected to reopen over the weekend.

Meanwhile, efforts to rebuild Haiti's main seaport - seen as vital to the international aid effort - are being stepped up.

Engineers have decided some parts of one pier are strong enough to handle limited amounts of cargo, but the port will be running at only 10% capacity and distribution of supplies remains slow.

Four vessels had docked by Thursday evening and US military divers were to start repair work to the pier on Friday.

In a bid to deliver greater quantities of aid, the US military is now operating at four airports in the region.

'Media obsessed'

But even as the aid operation remains the focus of events in Haiti, a leading UK medical journal has issued a sharp critique of the way aid agencies have been operating.

We do not recognise the picture of the aid response in Haiti painted by the Lancet
Brendan Gormley
Chief executive, DEC

In an editorial, the Lancet says many of the international aid agencies operating in Haiti may be doing more harm than good by promoting themselves rather than working for the common humanitarian goal.

But Brendan Gormley, chief executive of the UK Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), a UK-based umbrella group of 13 major aid agencies, rejected that view.

"We do not recognise the picture of the aid response in Haiti painted by the Lancet," he said.

"The Lancet editorial fails to take into account the huge efforts by dedicated staff and volunteers - both Haitians and international experts - who are working tirelessly to bring help to earthquake survivors.

The US and the UN World Food Programme insist the distribution of food and water is well under way, but BBC correspondents in Port-au-Prince say many people have still seen no international aid at all.

At least 500,000 people are currently living outdoors in 447 improvised camps in Port-au-Prince, according to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), with limited shelter and access to water.

Western countries are hoping to boost donations for the aid effort with a multi-network telethon on Friday night and Saturday morning.

Hope for Haiti Now, to be broadcast at 0100 GMT from New York, London, Los Angeles and Haiti, will feature Madonna, Bruce Springsteen, Beyonce and other major artists.

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