U.S. News Headlines

Monday, January 18, 2010

US military leads surge in Haiti relief effort

Vital aid and a surge in US military personnel to Haiti brought Monday a drip of hope to despairing survivors still seeking basic supplies and security nearly a week after the killer earthquake.

More than 2,200 Marines were to arrive Monday aboard the amphibious ship USS Bataan, Tanya Bradsher, a spokeswoman from US Southern Command, told AFP, boosting troop numbers to 7,500 either in Haiti or offshore.

Approximately 1,700 troops were already on the ground as part of the humanitarian response and in a bid to provide desperately needed security to back-up those efforts.

The surge comes six days after the 7.0-magnitude quake devastated the city of Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas, leaving tens of thousands dead, hundreds of thousands homeless and countless injured.

To back-up relief for the thousands of wounded, the US hospital ship Comfort was also expected to arrive Tuesday.

The armed military presence is certainly needed, according to both top US officials and aid agencies.

Pillaging led Haitian police to open fire on looters in the capital on Sunday.

At least one man was killed, shot in the head, as looters ransacked a supermarket and violence flared.

The unrest was stoked by the delay in supplies reaching hundreds of thousands of people who have been without a steady source of food or water since the quake struck.

"Incidents of violence and looting are on the rise as the desperation grows," warned the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Lieutenant-General Ken Keen, US commander of the joint task force in Haiti, told reporters they need "as many troops on the ground as (possible)," adding that there would be 10,000 US troops in the area in the next few weeks.

Haitian President Rene Preval invited a US presence into the country after the earthquake which destroyed Haiti's seat of government and forced his cabinet to work out of a police station near the airport, but some leaders in the region still rejected what they see as an unnecessary incursion.

Venezuela's populist President Hugo Chavez echoed fellow leftist Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega on Sunday by slamming Washington and characterizing US security efforts as an occupation.

"It appears they are militarily occupying Haiti, taking advantage of the tragedy," Chavez said, asking: "Why send 3,000 armed soldiers unless it is for war?"

Paratroopers from the US army's 82nd Airborne were Monday busy fanning out beyond their main hub at the Port-au-Prince airport, setting off in waves of navy Seahawk helicopters to establish bases beyond the capital from which to kickstart humanitarian operations.

Captain James McPherson of the US Coast Guard acknowledged air relief was the only way to make food and water deliveries before an alternative to boat drop-offs can be found.

"What we need to do to restore the port, get cargo moving," McPherson told CNN, speaking of the city's boat yard, which crumbled in the earthquake, spilling huge cranes, steel containers and other heavy equipment to the already shallow bay.

"Obviously a ship can move multiple tons of cargo. We need to do that. For the long-term success of Haiti, we have to have that going," he said.

US military aircraft would be helping distribute some 600,000 daily rations in the coming days, officials said.

US Southern Command reported that a US rescue and salvage vessel had arrived Monday and was to immediately begin coordinating joint diving effort for assessing the port's damage.

Engineers from the US Army Dive Team and other specialists hoped to get underwater surveying operations under way "to identify obstacles that are blocking the channels... as well as confirm possible areas for unloading of cargo," military officials said.

A salvage operation would then follow to clear debris from those identified pathways, in a huge undertaking expected to take many weeks, if not months.