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Brazilian soldiers spray tear gas at crowd of Haitians rushing for food aid

By Peter Slevin and William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 27, 2010; A09

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- Brazilian soldiers sprayed tear gas on a crush of Haitians seeking food from relief workers Tuesday, as international aid groups struggled to match the extraordinary demand for food two weeks after this country's paralyzing earthquake.

For the second time in two days, hungry Haitians who were gathered outside the presidential palace saw food running out and rushed to grab bags of dried grains, causing the soldiers to use tear gas to hold them back, according to U.N. World Food Program officials. The officials called the incident "isolated" and "regrettable."

Elsewhere in the capital, civilians backed by U.S. and U.N. troops successfully delivered food to thousands of people, but aid workers said more troops are needed for crowd control if Haitians are to be fed in the coming days.

As crowds swelled outside reopened banks and money transfer shops, the United Nations began recruiting Haitians for cleanup tasks, aiming to put money in workers' pockets and inject money into the shattered economy.

Long after search and rescue efforts ended, U.S. soldiers pulled a 31-year-old man alive from a collapsed building on the Rue des Miracles. The man, dusty and wearing only underwear, had a broken leg and was severely dehydrated.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said nearly 100 U.S. citizens were among the more than 110,000 people confirmed killed in the Jan. 12 earthquake. And at the Pentagon, officials said they expect the military can begin transferring its support role to others in three to six months.

Food, shelter and medical care remained the highest priorities in a capital hobbled by worry and logistical nightmares. The United Nations, which has only a small fraction of an estimated 200,000 family-size tents in the pipeline, appealed for enough food -- preferably ready-to-eat meals -- to feed 2 million people for 15 days.

"It's fair to say that this is one of the most complex emergencies the World Food Program has had to respond to," said Marcus Prior, a spokesman for the organization. He said that more supplies are on the way but that distribution remains difficult.

Aid organizers said the principal shortage was not food or trucks, but security. They said more U.S. troops or U.N. peacekeepers are needed to organize crowds and keep them in line until the food is distributed.

Catholic Relief Services reported a second successful day of deliveries to tens of thousands of people camped on a golf course in Petionville, in the hills above Port-au-Prince, the capital. With soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division helping Haitians to pass fat sacks of lentils and grains, workers reached 1,200 families after serving 1,300 on Monday.

Countless Haitians lost everything when their homes collapsed and have been unable to obtain cash as long as businesses have remained shuttered. With some of those businesses now reopening, large crowds started forming before dawn Tuesday outside banks and shops to withdraw cash or claim remittances from relatives abroad.

At a Unitransfer office on a main street in the Delmas neighborhood, 300 people had squeezed through the door by 1:30 p.m. At least as many remained outside as four members of the Haitian National Police controlled the flow of people.

Richardson Desir, 28, said he had stashed his savings in his home before the earthquake. When his home collapsed, he was left with only the money in his pockets, about $40. He buys a plate of rice and beans for about $3 on the street when he can, but his money is nearly gone.

Counting on receiving money promised by a cousin in Boston, he had started to wait outside the Unitransfer office starting at 8 a.m., but doubted he would make it inside before the shop closed at 4 p.m. He said he would try again Wednesday.

In the Montissaint neighborhood, the first "cash for work" crews organized by the U.N. Development Program began removing shovelfuls of debris from the canyon of crushed buildings that lined the block. The 5,000 new street cleaners will within a few weeks become a workforce of as many as 200,000, making the U.N. operation far and away the largest employer in the impoverished nation.

The crew -- including old women in flip-flops and boys too young to shave -- were desperate for the work, and they put their backs into the effort, pounding away on blocks of cement with hammers, crawling with pickaxes through snakes of downed power lines and tossing all the debris by hand into a row of waiting trucks.

The United Nations was paying them about $5 a day, with water. "This is the best thing for Haiti right now. It puts some food in our bellies, and we are doing something good for Haiti," said Antoine Charles, a supervisor of a crew, who made an extra dollar a day. "Hey, hey," he yelled at his workers, "keep shoveling!"

"There are no jobs in Haiti. This is a job," said Adam Rogers of the Development Program. "It gives people something productive to do and it gives them some hope that tomorrow will be better."

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