The US military's takeover of emergency operations in Haiti has triggered a diplomatic row with countries and aid agencies furious at having flights redirected.
Brazil and France lodged an official protest with Washington after US military aircraft were given priority at Port-au-Prince's congested airport, forcing many non-US flights to divert to the Dominican Republic.
Brasilia warned it would not relinquish command of UN forces in Haiti, and Paris complained the airport had become a US "annexe", exposing a brewing power struggle amid the global relief effort. The Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières also complained about diverted flights.
The row prompted Haiti's president, René Préval, to call for calm. "This is an extremely difficult situation," he told AP. "We must keep our cool to co-ordinate and not throw accusations at each other."
The squabbling came amid signs that aid was reaching some of the hundreds of thousands of people in desperate need of water, food and medicine six days after a magnitude 7 earthquake levelled the capital, killing more than 100,000, according to Haitian authorities.
The UN was feeding 40,000 and hoped to increase that to 1 million within a fortnight, said the secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, as he arrived in Port-au-Prince yesterday. "I am here with a message of hope that help is on the way," he said, speaking outside the severely damaged national palace. He also acknowledged "that many people are frustrated and they are losing their patience."
Ban said he has three priorities in Haiti: saving as many lives as possible, stepping up humanitarian assistance and ensuring the co-ordination of aid coming into the country. "We should not waste even a single item, a dollar," he said.
The plight of 80 elderly people at a partially collapsed municipal hospice just a mile from the airport, now a huge aid hub, showed the desperate need. The body of a dead 70-year-old man rotted on a mattress, nearly indistinguishable from the exhausted, hungry and thirsty people around him. "Others won't live until tonight," an administrator, Jean Emmanuel, told the Associated Press.
The Haitian government has established 14 food distribution points and aid groups have opened five emergency health centres. Water-purification units – a priority to avert disease and dehydration – were arriving.
But with aftershocks jolting the ruins, bloated bodies in the street and severe shortages of water and food many survivors had had enough: an exodus trekked on foot out of the city to rural areas.
The security situation worsened, with some looters fighting with rocks and clubs for rice, clothing and other goods scavenged from debris. In places the embryonic aid machine did not even try to organise distribution. Aid workers tossed out food packets to crowds and US helicopters took off as soon as they offloaded supplies, prompting scrambles in which the fittest and strongest prevailed.
"They are not identifying the people who need the water. The sick and the old have no chance," Estime Pierre Deny, hoping to fill a plastic container with water amid a scrum of people, told Reuters. (continues here)