Black Hawks bring relief from above for desperate Haitians

Helicopters airlift food, water and medicines in to palace grounds as US troop numbers rise to 11,000

American Black Hawk helicopters swooped down onto the grounds of the ruined presidential palace in Port-au-Prince yesterday to disgorge combat troops and humanitarian supplies as both the United States and the United Nations pressed the pace and scope of their relief operations in Haiti.

In Washington, officials said the US presence in and around the ruined Haitian capital had reached 11,000, including 2,200 Marines who arrived with earth-moving equipment, helicopters and medical aid, all intended to ease bottlenecks in the supply chain of food, water and medicines and increase the capacity of medical teams to cope with the numbers of sick and injured.

One week after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck the already impoverished country, governments and aid agencies were still struggling to maximise the impact of their aid efforts while tackling problems associated with risks of spreading disease and deteriorating security.

The UN Security Council yesterday voted to deploy an additional 3,500 soldiers and civilian police to the country as soon as possible. Part of their job will be to secure aid convoy routes into the capital city from airports, shipping terminals and the Dominican Republic.

Just as the collapsed dome of the presidential palace will be one of the iconic images from the first hours of the tragedy, so yesterday's landing of the Black Hawk helicopters in its grounds may become one of the visual symbols of the huge relief effort which has been spearheaded from the start by the Americans.

As the helicopters came to rest, crowds had already rushed from a nearby park to watch through the perimeter railings. Soldiers of the 82nd Airborne immediately began to unload supplies of food and bottled water. So dramatic a show of military strength at so sensitive a site risked raising the hackles of critics, including the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who has already condemned the US mobilisation in Haiti as a "military occupation".

President Nicolas Sarkozy of France moved to repair a potential rift with the US after his International Cooperation Minister, Alain Joyandet, also appeared to suggest the US had effectively colonised Haiti after a French mercy plane was turned back by US air traffic control at Port-au-Prince. The Elysee Palace issued a statement praising the "essential role" of the Americans on the ground and the "exceptional mobilisation" by the US in responding to the calamity. Mr Joyandet had been quoted as saying in reference to the US: "This is about helping Haiti, not about occupying Haiti."

After the Security Council vote, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon spoke of "extraordinary times that call for extraordinary measures and extraordinary decisiveness". The Council had "sent a clear signal that the world is with Haiti. We are making rapid progress despite extremely difficult challenges".

US defence officials meanwhile said they were ready to open two new runways to accept humanitarian aircraft. The first, near the beach resort of Jacmel, is expected to be be open within 24 hours to accept C-17 military cargo aircraft, according to Army Maj-Gen Daniel Allen, second-in-charge of the US military operations in Haiti. A second additional runway would open in the Dominican Republic soon, he added. It was also claimed that Port-au-Prince's airport can now handle 100 flights a day, up from 60 last week.

After a week of almost daily pronouncements on the crisis by Barack Obama as well as trips made there both by Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State and her husband Bill Clinton, ordinary Americans appear impressed by their own country's response. A new CBS poll showed Mr Obama's overall approval rating rise to 50 per cent while 80 per cent approved of his handling of the earthquake aftermath. Haiti's President Rene Preval said the international response to the disaster had been "quick, concrete and massive".

In spite of outbreaks of looting the UN said security problems were largely under control. "The situation is tense but calm. Of course there are lootings because the population is on edge," said Elisabeth Byrs, of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Haiti earthquake in numbers

200,000 estimated death toll.

75,000 victims have already been buried in mass graves.

250,000 estimated number of those injured. The total rendered homeless by the quake is said to be around 1.5 million.

2,000 UN peacekeeping troops to be sent to bolster 7,000 military peacekeepers already in the country. An additional 1,500 police force also approved by UN Security Council.

810 million ready-to-eat meals that the World Food Programme aims to distribute in the next week.

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