Page last updated at 08:24 GMT, Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Haiti police battle to keep streets safe

Policeman trying to stop looting in Port-au-Prince
Police insist they have the numbers to tackle looters

By Nick Davis
BBC News, Haiti

The police in Haiti look more like soldiers, issued with grey urban camouflage fatigues and body armour along with the high-powered weaponry - it makes them look like they're going to war.

As the sun goes down they jump in the back of pick-up trucks, filling up the rear of the vehicle and preparing to take to the streets of their capital, aware that looting and violence are a growing threat.

Clercine Tabarre police station is in the north of the city in a safe area, but drive a few kilometres down the road and things are far more dangerous.

"In the downtown, yes things are a lot worse but there's a lot of police, a lot of cops, a lot of safety: the police take care of them," said one officer wearing a face mask to protect him from the dust.

The "them" he means are the looters who are starting to attack businesses in the city, not just for food and water but for anything they can get their hands on.

Military escorts

In some cases the looters get looted, as the goods they've stolen get taken from them.

People running away from police in Port-au-Prince 18 Jan
As days go by, there are fears unrest may become widespread

The security forces have started firing on them and one person has been killed, but these incidents have been isolated so far.

But as the days go by and food and water remain in short supply, the country is at a stage where unrest could become widespread.

At one point on Monday, UN police fired baton rounds to force a crowd back from the gates of the airport, where international aid is arriving.

Trucks delivering aid are being given military escorts.

American defence officials say some 10,000 American military personnel could be in Haiti within a few days but the question is: will it work or will things get worse?

"When you think about people who lost everything, except what they're carrying on their backs, who haven't not only eaten, probably haven't slept in four days... and when the sun goes down, it's totally dark and they spend all night lying, wandering around tripping over bodies living and dead - I think they've behaved quite well."

So said former US President, Bill Clinton, special UN envoy to the Caribbean nation.

The international airport in Port-au-Prince already looks like it has been turned into an American military base, with GIs armed with automatic weapons at the entrance to arrivals, and servicemen and women unloading water and supplies.

However, outside the airport they can barely be seen apart from the occasional Humvee caught in traffic near the runway gates.

The UN's white vehicles and blue helmets should be more easy to spot but despite the numbers on the ground they too seem barely visible.

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