High fives for the children of Haiti

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The people of Haiti took time out from preparing for the imminent hurricane season yesterday to welcome an impromptu visitor, as Michelle Obama began her first solo foreign trip with a tour of the country's badly damaged capital.

Mrs Obama was taken on a US Army helicopter on a sightseeing trip over Port-au-Prince, where 1.3 million people were made homeless and 200,000 killed by the earthquake that struck three months ago. "It's powerful, the devastation is definitely powerful," she told reporters when asked for her first impressions.

She landed in the grounds of the partially collapsed National Palace in the city centre, located next to parks where thousands of people are still living in tents and under tarpaulins. Her party was met by Haiti's leader René Préval and his First Lady, Elisabeth.

Later, Mrs Obama and her travelling companion, US Vice-President Joe Biden's wife, Jill, toured a centre for child victims of the quake. The White House said she hoped the visit would "underscore to the Haitian people, and the Haitian government, the enduring US commitment to help Haiti recover and rebuild, especially as we enter the rainy and hurricane seasons."

They also hope the trip will help dampen criticism from some Haitians about Barack Obama's failure to visit the country. Though the US has about 13,000 troops stationed there, and is considered essential to the rebuilding effort, the US President has not found time to see Port-au-Prince for himself.

His absence has been keenly noted by locals who previously regarded America's first black President with a degree of affection. Haiti, which was formed following a slave revolt against French settlers in 1804, was the world's first independent black republic.

Mrs Obama has so far devoted herself largely to a domestic agenda,with a high-profile campaign on healthy eating. Her first international tour without her husband gives some indication as to the principles that will underpin her foreign agenda, which is expected to focus on helping children.

She and Mrs Biden were due to arrive in Mexico City last night, touring schools and speaking to university students.