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Haiti quake: Tens of thousands feared dead, millions homeless

Haitian President Rene Preval has said estimates of the death toll in the devastating earthquake in capital Port-au-Prince could easily be in the tens of thousands, while other officials said more than 100,000 may have perished.

world Updated: Jan 14, 2010 11:33 IST

Haitian President Rene Preval has said estimates of the death toll in the devastating earthquake in capital Port-au-Prince could easily be in the tens of thousands, while other officials said more than 100,000 may have perished.

"Up to now I've heard 50,000, I've heard 30,000. Let's say, it's too early to give a number," Preval told broadcaster CNN, conceding that any sort of official estimate was extremely difficult. "I am still trying to understand myself the magnitude of the event."

Earlier, he had told The Miami Herald that thousands may have been killed in the magnitude 7.0 earthquake that rocked the country on Tuesday afternoon, and issued an appeal for world assistance. The damage was centred in and around the capital Port-au-Prince, home to about 1.9 million people.

Figures for the number of dead remain murky as the government tries to assess the damage.

Speaking on CNN, Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive has said he believed "well over 100,000" died, based on the number of buildings that have collapsed. The Haitian ambassador to the US, Raymond Joseph, estimated 100,000 people dead or missing.

The Haitian ambassador to the Organization of American States Wednesday said he refused to accept estimates by other Haitian officials that 100,000 people may have died in the Haitian earthquake.

"I want to be optimistic," Duly Brutus said at a Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) briefing about the Haitian crisis. "I refuse to accept that we have more than 30,000 dead.

Addressing the emerging photos of long lines of dead bodies in the streets of Haiti, PAHO deputy director Jon Andrus pleaded that there not be a rush to bury the dead too quickly before they are identified and families can be contacted.

"Dead bodies do not cause epidemics," Andrus reassured. "There are misplaced fears about dead bodies that lead to mass burials."

He said too-rapid burial was "detrimental to the mental health of survivors."

The number of dead remains unknown as the government tries to assess the damage of Tuesday's massive quake. Many victims remained buried in rubble, while survivors tried to dig them out with their bare hands.

Brutus said it was too early to tell the numbers.

"We need to wait," Brutus said, adding that a more realistic estimate might be available in two to four days.

Brutus said he had managed to reach many friends and family via mobile phone since the quake struck Tuesday afternoon, bolstering his optimism.

He told reporters that relief planes had already started landing at the airport in the capital Port-au-Prince, indicating the landing strip had been declared safe. He said that airline flights were not being allowed to land to give priority to getting relief supplies and workers into the country.

Health officials were under pressure to rescue as many people as possible within the first 48 hours, treat trauma and revent infection.

The other priorities were clean water, food and controlling communicable diseases, Andrus said.

"These are the major concerns for the upcoming days," he said.

Medical care was enormously handicapped by the destruction of two major hospitals in Port-au-Prince, he said. Two hospitals in neighbouring Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispanola with Haiti, were also damaged in the quake, Andrus said.

Andrus urged people who want to support relief efforts to donate money to a reputable organization. He said donations of food and clothing were not useful for the Haiti efforts.

UN officials in New York confirmed on Wednesday that 14 UN peacekeepers were killed by the earthquakes that struck Haiti and caused widespread damage.

Among the dead, 10 are Brazilian soldiers, three are Jordanian soldiers and one is a civilian.

Alain LeRoy, undersecretary general for peacekeeping operations, said the UN expects the death toll of UN personnel to rise in coming days because of the estimated 50 to 100 personnel still unaccounted for.

The head of the UN mission in Haiti, Hedi Annabi, and his deputy are still unaccounted for. Both were in a hotel that housing other UN personnel when the quakes struck on Tuesday afternoon.

"It's very likely that they are under the rubbles (of the hotel), but we cannot confirm that they have died," LeRoy told reporters.

The end death toll could amount to the largest number of deaths ever for any UN single mission. UN officials warned that the situation remained fluid because the quake and its aftershocks had cut off communication lines between UN headquarters in New York and the mission in Haiti.

Hundreds of thousands of Haitians slept in the streets on Tuesday night after the earthquake struck, fearful that their houses would collapse. UN soldiers and police patrolled Port-au-Prince since the earthquake to maintain order and security.

The UN Security Council held a minute of silence before it met on Wednesday and issued a statement expressing "deepest sympathy and solidarity" to Haitians killed or affected by the catastrophe.

The 15-nation council also voiced support for the government of Haiti and called on UN members to assist the country in rescuing the survivors.

John Holmes, the top UN coordinator for humanitarian emergency, said there was no "reliable information at the moment".