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U.S. troops move into Port-au-Prince, Haiti, to help keep order, distribute aid

By William Booth and Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, January 20, 2010; A01

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Hundreds of U.S. troops surged into the epicenter of Haiti's earthquake-ravaged capital Tuesday to guard convoys and food distribution sites, while thousands more stationed themselves on ships and helicopters offshore to bolster relief and recovery efforts.

One week after a 7.0-magnitude quake crippled this city, many Haitians living on the streets have still not received any food or medical assistance from their government or the international community, but there were increasing signs that the aid effort is gaining momentum.

As the U.N. Security Council approved 3,500 additional peacekeepers for the Haiti mission, the U.S. military and other foreign forces began dropping food from planes, delivering troops by helicopter to volatile neighborhoods, and working to prepare other entry points for aid deliveries.

U.S. Navy divers arrived at Port-au-Prince's crippled port -- where a pier was perilously listing and two of three cranes were submerged -- to help engineers decide how much weight the docks could hold. Slowly, almost gingerly, they began to unload shipping containers from a barge that had sailed from Mobile, Ala., filled with supplies for the World Food Organization and Catholic Relief Services.

"It's really shaky down there," said one of the divers, Chris Lussier.

The delivery of aid was still hampered in some cases, leading to frustration among Haitians and the workers trying to help them. The medical organization Doctors Without Borders said in a statement Tuesday that another one of its cargo planes had been diverted from landing at the Port-au-Prince airport, where officials have struggled to cope with the massive influx of aid. The group said it has had five flights, with a total of 85 tons of medical supplies, refused landing so far.

Army Maj. Gen. Daniel Allyn, second in charge of the U.S. military operation in Haiti, said officials "continue to make progress," but added: "We do not underestimate the scope of the challenge here."

Allyn said troops are working to open more airfields, get more trucks to help deliver water and supplies to victims, and bring in repair and construction equipment to start removing rubble. Some front-loaders could be seen beginning to scoop up the debris of several downtown buildings.

As of Tuesday morning, Allyn said, there were about 2,000 U.S. troops on the ground and about 5,000 on ships or helicopters offshore helping in the efforts. The U.S. military is eventually expected to have 10,000 troops involved in the operation -- with half of them coming ashore.

U.S. and Canadian military forces have been designated to guard food distribution sites as they open, freeing the U.N. security forces to patrol and keep order. The additional U.N. peacekeeping personnel approved Tuesday will bring the total in Haiti to 12,500.

Throughout the morning, U.S. Navy Black Hawk helicopters shuttled in troops from the Army's 82nd Airborne Division to the National Palace compound in the center of the city. The palace itself is in ruins, but the compound is fenced off and the troops appeared to be setting up a temporary camp.

Hundreds of Haitians, many of whom are living in a squalid tent city just outside the palace grounds, pressed against the iron bars to watch the troops arrive. An old man pushed around a wheelbarrow full of popcorn, selling small plastic bags of it.

"They've come here to help give this country direction again," said Josef Laurient, 35 and unemployed, as he watched the troops unload. "I'm so happy to see them, because up to now there has been no security for us."

On a grassy hilltop at the only golf course in Port-au-Prince, soldiers with the 82nd Airborne were unloading helicopters as they shuttled in boxes of emergency rations, which the troops distributed to the residents of a tent city that had grown around them. "It's all gone pretty smoothly. Everybody's been nice and calm," said Sgt. Caleb Barrieau.

U.S. troops had been dropping food and water from helicopters in various locations, but doing so had created mayhem as Haitians scrambled for the supplies. U.N. aid officials have advised against the practice after one drop near the slum of Cite Soleil almost caused a riot.

Among the many supplies running short in Haiti is blood, a World Health Organization official said Tuesday.

"One of the urgent health needs is for blood," said Jon K. Andrus, the deputy director of the WHO's Pan American Health Organization, which is based in Washington. "Haiti's National Blood Center building was damaged, and some equipment may need to be replaced."

In the volatile city center, Haitian business owners began visiting shops and warehouses, hoping to secure what inventory was left. But only a small contingent of Haitian police, unassisted by foreign forces, worked to hold back increasingly impatient crowds awaiting food, water and international help.

Police fired into the air repeatedly in hopes of keeping the gathering crowds away from intact shops. As quickly as they scattered, the crowds reassembled.

"There's no way to stop the looting, but we're here to try to slow it down," said Louis-Jean Ephesian, a Haiti National Police officer patrolling Boulevard Dessaline, the capital's main commercial strip. "The biggest problem now is that people are trying to destroy what's left."

Ephesian and his partner stood guard outside what had been a photocopying business on the Rue des Miracles in the main business district, where few multi-story buildings survived the quake. He said the banks had been robbed of the money in their vaults. Appliance stores had been emptied. Grocery stores had been stripped bare.

The owner of the photocopying store pulled up in a red Toyota pickup and quickly packed his copy machines into the back while he had police protection.

"It's not dangerous here, but the population is hungry," Ephesian said. "If they get food and water, they'll stop acting out of ignorance."

Nearby, hundreds of young men milled about. Francesco Petruzzelli, the owner of a hardware store that, miraculously, was still intact, said that if he opened the large steel door to his shop without police protection, looters would storm inside and empty the shelves. He kept a shotgun inside, he said, but could not safely get it.

"They keep talking about having 10,000 Marines, but where are they?" said Petruzzelli, who is a U.S. citizen. "If they sent even some Marines here, these guys would get scared off, that's a fact. Where are the Americans?"

Staff writers Dana Hedgpeth and Mary Beth Sheridan in Port-au-Prince and staff writer Rob Stein in Washington contributed to this report.

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