Troops fire tear gas as Haiti food handout turns chaotic

Tuesday, January 26, 2010 - 1:54pm

PORT-AU-PRINCE – U.N. troops fired tear gas at desperate Haitians crowding a food handout outside the wrecked presidential palace on Tuesday as delays in getting help to earthquake survivors persist two weeks after the catastrophe.

The Brazilian U.N. peacekeepers used pepper spray to control a frenzied crowd of thousands of Haitians seeking food at a makeshift camp on the grounds of the palace.

"They're not violent, just desperate. They just want to eat," Brazilian Army Colonel Fernando Soares said. "The problem is, there is not enough food for everyone."

The 7.0-magnitude quake killed up to 200,000 people and demolished swaths of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and other cities. A huge U.S.-led international relief operation is struggling to feed, house and care for hundreds of thousands of hungry, homeless survivors, many of them injured.

Facing persistent complaints by survivors that the huge amounts of aid flown in to Haiti is not reaching them on the ground, U.S. troops, U.N. peacekeepers and aid workers have widened and intensified the distribution of food and water.

Some of the food handouts in the capital have turned unruly.

At the presidential palace on Tuesday, U.N. troops with shotguns handed out sacks of rice with American flags on them. Armored trucks formed a cordon to control the crowd and people were searched as they entered the checkpoint.

"Yesterday they gave us rice, but there was not enough. There were too many people," said Wola Levolise, 47, who is living in the camp with her nine children.

The United States has dispatched more than 15,000 military personnel to Haiti. About 4,700 are deployed on the ground with the rest on ships off the coast.

The U.S. military said it could scale back its involvement within three to six months as other international organizations assume larger roles providing security and disaster relief. It does, however, plan to help build a 5,000-bed hospital to provide longer-term care to quake victims.

GARBAGE SERVICE

There were signs the ruined capital was slowly returning to life. A city garbage truck hauled away piles of rubbish at a makeshift camp near St. Peter's Church and a long line snaked outside a bank in the suburb of Petionville. A street market along Rue Geffrard in Port-au-Prince was crowded and chaotic.

As the relief operation for Haiti turns from rescue to recovery, authorities are trying to relocate at least 400,000 survivors — now sheltering in more than 400 sprawling makeshift camps across Port-au-Prince — in temporary tent villages outside the wrecked city.

Health Minister Alex Larsen said 1 million Haitians had been displaced from their homes in the Port-au-Prince area. The government had tents for 400,000 to be used in the new, temporary settlements, but would need more.

Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive made an urgent appeal for an additional 200,000 tents at an international donors conference in Montreal, Canada, on Monday.

Almost daily aftershocks have shaken Port-au-Prince since the quake, raising the possibility the city might have to be rebuilt on a safer location, away from geological fault lines.

"In 30 seconds, Haiti lost 60 percent of its GDP," Bellerive said in Montreal, referring to the concentration of commerce and people in the capital. "So we must decentralize."

Bellerive thanked the world community for its help so far, but said "more and more and more" was needed to rebuild a fragile Caribbean state that even before the January 12 quake was the poorest in the Western Hemisphere.

"What we're looking for is a long-term commitment ... At least five to 10 years," he told the conference, which included the United States, Canada, France and 10 other countries.

The group decided to hold an international pledging conference at U.N. headquarters in New York in March.