Page last updated at 07:04 GMT, Friday, 22 January 2010

Haiti port opening raises hopes for quake victims


International efforts to get aid to Haitians continue

Efforts to rebuild Haiti's main port are being stepped up in an effort to ensure emergency supplies reach millions still in need of aid.

US navy and army divers are to start repairing the port's pier on Friday.

Re-opening Haiti's seaport in the capital, Port-au-Prince, is seen as vital to the international aid effort.

Millions of people remain in need after Haiti's earthquake, and plans are being made to house 400,000 survivors in new tented villages outside the capital.

The BBC's Adam Mynott, in Port-au-Prince, says 50% of the port was destroyed by the earthquake, but engineers have decided some parts of one pier are strong enough to handle limited amounts of cargo.

The port will be running at 10% capacity.

But it will not be the answer in getting aid through to the quake-devastated country, our correspondent adds.

Just four vessels had docked by Thursday evening. Dock workers have offloaded 124 containers of humanitarian aid from ships from the US, the Netherlands and France.

However, correspondents say the aid that has so far arrived at the port is being driven for 45 minutes across the city to the airport, where it is piling up and not being distributed to those who need it.

Mass graves

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.

Mark Doyle
Mark Doyle, BBC News, Port-au-Prince

The police chief of a notoriously violent part of the capital, the slum area Cite Soleil, has appealed for help in countering criminal gangs that escaped from the main prison during last week's earthquake.

Several hundred of some 5,000 on the run are believed to be hardened criminals belonging to Haiti's gangs.

Inspector Aristide Rosemont says the gangs have been looting and stealing. Local people in the area confirm this - and women say they have been raped by gang members.

The police chief wouldn't say who he was appealing to for help, but his plea is clearly aimed at, first, the US troops who have just arrived here, and, second, the UN forces that have been stationed in Haiti for several years.

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.

At least 122 people have been saved by international search-and-rescue teams, according to the US government, but hopes are now fading that anyone will be found alive underneath the rubble.

A Florida-based team is reported to have left, along with others from Luxembourg and the UK.

"You have to be realistic and, after nine days, reality says it is more difficult to find people alive. But it's not impossible," said Chilean Army Major Rodrigo Vasquez at the site of the collapsed Montana Hotel.

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.

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

The Lancet says the aid industry has become too obsessed with media campaigns, despite past mistakes during the response to the Asian tsunami five years ago.

Lancet editor, Dr Richard Horton, told the BBC there was no effective common leadership of humanitarian workers in Haiti, as many non-governmental organisations were competing against each other.

Improvised shelters

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).

Tents will not work in May when the long rainy season begins and later when hurricane season starts, but at this point there is not much choice
Vincent Houver, International Organisation for Migration

Of the 350 settlements assessed by the IOM, its partners and the Haitian government, only 179 had improvised shelter material and tents, and only three had access to potable water, the IOM said.

The Geneva-based UN body said it was distributing tents, blankets and plastic sheeting provided by the US, Japan and Turkey, but warned that more permanent shelter would soon be needed.

"Tents will not work in May when the long rainy season begins and later when hurricane season starts, but at this point there is not much choice," said IOM Chief of Mission Vincent Houver.

"Assessments must take place and best construction methods and durable materials need to be discussed," he added.

In a bid to deliver greater quantities of aid, the US military is now operating at four airports in the area - Port-au-Prince and Jacmel in Haiti, and San Isidro and Barahona in the neighbouring Dominican Republic.

Bill Clinton and Ban Ki-moon have spoken of their long-term commitment to Haiti

The head of the US Southern Command, Gen Douglas Fraser, said 1,400 flights were on a waiting list for landing slots at Port-au-Prince's airport, which can handle 120 to 140 flights a day. The airport, which is under US military control, has only one 2,900m (9,600ft) runway.

The US military is currently giving the "highest priority" to shipments of water donations to help meet the "overwhelming" need for water.

Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has said five of its planes carrying a total of 77 tonnes of medical and relief supplies have been turned away in the past week. Only one has been able to land.

Security concerns are also limiting the delivery of aid by road from the Dominican Republic. The BBC's Gary Duffy, who is at the border with Haiti, says only two convoys guarded by UN troops are entering Haiti each day.

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 relief at all.

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