Monday, January 18, 2010

Looters prey upon quake-ravaged Haiti

Roving bands of hundreds of looters on Monday swarmed across Port-au-Prince, while police and military officials tasked with protecting Haiti's quake-stricken capital were nowhere to be found.

World leaders have promised to dispatch additional police, troops, marines and UN peacekeepers to the city which has spiralled into chaos and despair after being levelled by a massive earthquake nearly a week ago.

But for now, the commercial heart of Haiti's shattered capital remains firmly in the hands of the thieves and vandals, who make off with whatever has not been damaged beyond use.

Looters roamed from shop to shop, some clearly survivors scavenging for food and water, as the unrest across the region was stoked by a delay in supplies reaching hundreds of thousands of people desperate for aid.

But others on the rampage on Port-au-Prince's lawless streets appeared to be simply marauders availing themselves of whatever goods they might be able to use or sell at a later time.

And not all of the city's looting victims were merchants.

"I wanted to get my possessions from my house but the looters prevented me from doing so," said one distraught elderly man, near what remains of his rubble-strewn home.

"They've already stolen almost everything I own: my rice, my spaghetti, my milk," the old man said disconsolately.

Occasionally, one or two isolated police officers fired shots into the air in an effort to stop the looting in the city centre but they were vastly outnumbered by the masses of looters, who scattered briefly, if at all, before returning to their plundering.

Widespread looting on Sunday led Haitian police to open fire on a crowd in the capital, killing at least one man who was shot in the head, as others ransacked a supermarket.

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

Roaming gangs of looters steal anything they can find: sneakers, fabric, music stereos. Everything is up for grabs.

International officials overseeing relief operations on Monday said they were painfully aware of the need for additional troops and police to get vital aid to quake survivors - and to restore a semblance of order as Haiti struggles to emerge from the worst catastrophe to befall the poor Caribbean nation.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon requested 3,500 extra troops and police to boost his battered mission in Haiti as the world body's death toll from the disaster rose to 46, with hundreds of staff still unaccounted for.

Speaking to reporters after briefing the Security Council on his six-hour visit to the devastated Haitian capital on Sunday, Ban said he had requested that the UN mission, known as MINUSTAH, be considerably beefed up.

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

About 1,700 US 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.

And food rations provided by the United Nations and humanitarian organisations slowly began to trickle out to Haiti's desperate recipients.

Meanwhile, more than 2,200 Marines arrived aboard the amphibious ship USS Bataan, boosting overall US troop numbers to 7,000 either in Haiti or offshore.

And Lieutenant-General Ken Keen, US commander of the joint task force in Haiti, said there would be 10,000 US troops in the area in coming weeks.
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