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Haiti's homeless plead for tents after earthquake

The dusty football pitch lined with spacious tents is an oasis for earthquake survivors among Haiti's homeless sheltering in acres of squalid camps.

Competition for the canvas homes has boiled into arguments and machete fights, a sign of the desperation felt by the hundreds of thousands of people without homes struggling for shelter in this wrecked city. Haiti's president has asked the world for 200,000 tents and says he will sleep in one himself.

Fenela Jacobs, 39, lives in a 4-by-4-metre abode provided by the UK-based Islamic Relief Worldwide. She says the group offered her two tents for 21 survivors but she ended up putting everyone in one tent after people threatened to burn both down if she didn't give a tent up.

Still, she says living in the 2-metre-tall khaki home with a paisley interior is better than the makeshift shelters crafted from bed sheets propped on wooden sticks where her family was living before.

"It's a lot more comfortable," Jacobs said, though she added it gets really hot inside the tent in Cazo, a Port-au-Prince neighbourhood hidden in the hills behind the international airport.

Tents are in desperately short supply following the 7.0-magnitude quake on 12 January that killed at least 150,000 people.

The global agency supplying tents said it already had 10,000 stored in Haiti and at least 30,000 more would be arriving. But that "is unlikely to address the extensive shelter needs," the International Organisation for Migration stressed.

The organisation had estimated 100,000 family-sized tents were needed. But the UN says up to 1 million people require shelter, and President Rene Preval issued an urgent appeal yesterday calling for 200,000 tents and urging that the aircraft carrying them be given urgent landing priority at Port-au-Prince airport.

In solidarity with earthquake victims, Preval plans to move into a tent home on the manicured lawn of his collapsed National Palace in downtown Port-au-Prince, Tourism Minister Patrick Delatour told The Associated Press.

"It is a decision that the president has made himself," Delatour said.

The secretary-general of the Organisation of American States, Jose Miguel Insulza, planned to visit Haiti today to study relief efforts.

The Haitian government and international groups were preparing a more substantial tent city on Port-au-Prince's outskirts.

Brazilian army engineers with the UN peacekeeping force in Haiti have cleared and levelled 12 acres north of the city, planned as the first of more than a half-dozen sites that officials hope will shelter the displaced before the onset of spring rains and summer hurricanes.

Colonel Delcio Monteiro Sapper said the Interamerican Development Bank wants to clear a total of 247 acres owned by Haiti's government that could house 100,000 quake refugees.

Helen Clark, administrator of the UN Development Programme, said providing shelter is a pressing priority that requires innovative solutions.

"China, for example, set up 400,000 semi-permanent houses after the Sichuan earthquake," she said in a statement. "Similar initiatives will need to be considered and supported for Haiti."

On the football pitch in the Cazo neighbourhood, the tents are marked "Qatar Aid," a gift from the Gulf state, but some Haitian quake survivors have personalized theirs — one flies a Haitian flag, another has a Jamaican flag with a picture of Bob Marley.

"This was miserable," said Islamic Relief Worldwide's Moustafa Osman, from Birmingham, England, pointing to the few remaining homemade shelters at the site. "People were living like this everywhere."

Osman's own supply of 1,000 tents has yet to make its way to Haiti, stuck somewhere en route or possibly even waiting in containers that have arrived at Port-au-Prince airport but have yet to be unpacked.

He persuaded a Qatari search and rescue team that was leaving Haiti to donate their 82 tents. He desperately needs at least 16 more for the soccer field settlement, which houses 500 people. Latrines and showers are also yet to arrive.

Osman doesn't speak the local Creole language, so he went to a mosque and hired two Haitians to translate for him. He said he made clear to them that "we are not here for the Muslims, we are here for all the people."

He then negotiated with the St. Claire Roman Catholic Church for permission to use the field on their land for his camp and cleared it with Haiti's government. Fights broke out Sunday when workers were distributing tents, with families trying to get the shelters and others competing for space.

Osman confiscated a machete and temporarily evacuated his staff from the camp.

He worries there will be violence if he doesn't get the tents needed to house the remaining families. He hired two men among the refugees, clad them in blue vests marked Islamic Relief Worldwide and put them to work as go-betweens linking the people in the camp and his staff.

The UN reported today that more police officers were reporting for duty and Port-au-Prince was generally secure but there had been isolated looting. It said commerce was increasing, with banks, supermarkets and gas stations returning to operation.