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U.S.: Haiti aid bottleneck is easing up

More flights cited; Marines arrive as local police call for backup

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A policeman in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Monday tries to stop two men from entering a section of downtown where people were searching for food at a collapsed supermarket.
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updated 7:47 p.m. ET Jan. 18, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Amid sporadic looting and pleas from local police for backup, the U.S. military said Monday that the bottleneck slowing aid distribution in Haiti's capital is easing, with more flights moving through the city's airport and the seaport expected to reopen later this week.

About 100 flights a day are now landing, up from 60 last week, said the U.S. military spokesman in Haiti, Cmdr. Chris Lounderman. "The ramp was designed for 16 large aircraft," he said. "At times there were up to 40. That's why there was gridlock."

In addition, the U.S. military on Monday staged the first drop of supplies from a fixed aircraft. Flying nonstop from a base in North Carolina, a C-17 delivered 14,500 meals ready to eat and 15,000 liters of water to a drop zone five miles northeast of the Port-au-Prince airport, the military said.

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Helicopters have been delivering supplies but their loads are significantly smaller. Thirty three are now in the field, and will be joined by 15 more by Tuesday, the U.S. military said.

U.S. officials also agreed with U.N. officials on a system to grant priority to humanitarian flights — following criticism that military and rescue flights had sometimes been first in line.

Some countries and aid groups such as Geneva-based Doctors Without Borders had complained that planes filled with doctors and medical supplies had been forced to land in the neighboring Dominican Republic and come in by road, delaying urgent care for injured quake victims by two days.

In Paris, French Cooperation Minister Alain Joyandet expressed concern about the major U.S. military role in the country, saying it should be clarified: "This is about helping Haiti, not about occupying Haiti," said Joyandet, who last week complained about U.S. handling of the airport.

But other French officials were conciliatory.

"You have a small airport ... which was devastated by the earthquake and you have hundred of planes which want to land," said French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud. "So it's totally normal that there are delays, but I think that the situation has dramatically improved."

He said it's still more important to repair the damaged seaport — a task U.S. officials said they hoped to achieve this week. "In terms of aid, it's the port where we can bring most of the aid," Araud said.

The U.S. Coast Guard ship Oak is at the harbor and will use heavy cranes and other equipment to make the port functional.

Also Monday, some 2,200 U.S. Marines arrived by ship, their mission to protect the huge relief operation.

Police: Haiti needs help
It was not clear when the Marines would leave their ships for the destroyed streets of Port-au-Prince, but local police pleaded for backup immediately.

"We do not have the capacity to fix this situation. Haiti needs help ... the Americans are welcome here. But where are they? We need them here on the street with us," said policeman Dorsainvil Robenson, as he chased looters.

"Whether things explode is all down to whether help gets through from the international community," added police commander Ralph Jean-Brice, who runs Haiti's West Department. His police force is down by half due to the quake.

  Injuries force agonizing choices
Jan. 18: Doctors are treating a huge number of similar injuries from Haiti's devastating earthquake at a private hospital now being used as a trauma center. NBC's Nancy Snyderman reports.

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Looting spread to more parts of downtown Port-au-Prince on Monday as hundreds of young men and boys clambered up broken walls to break into shops to take whatever they could find. Especially prized was toothpaste, which people smear under their noses to fend off the stench of decaying bodies.

At one place, youths fought over a stock of rum with broken bottles, machetes and razors and police fired shots into the air to break up the crowd.

"I am drinking as much as I can. It gives courage," said Jean-Pierre Junior, wielding a broken wooden plank with nails to protect his bottle of rum.

Even so, the U.S. Army's on-the-ground commander, Lt. Gen. Ken Keen, said the city is seeing less violence than before the earthquake. "Is there gang violence? Yes. Was there gang violence before the earthquake? Absolutely."'

The Marines are arriving with heavy earth-moving equipment, medical aid and helicopters, said the U.S. Southern Command, which aims to have more than 10,000 U.S. troops in the area for the rescue operation. Some 1,000 U.S. troops were already on the ground Monday morning, most of them Army soldiers from the 82nd Airborne.

At the United Nations, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday asked the Security Council to beef up the U.N. peacekeeping force in Haiti with 1,500 additional police and 2,000 troops. The U.N. now has about 7,000 troops and 2,100 police in Haiti. A decision was expected Tuesday.

World leaders have promised massive amounts of assistance to rebuild Haiti since Tuesday's quake killed as many as 200,000 people and left its capital, Port-au-Prince, in ruins.

European Union institutions and member states have offered more than $575 million in emergency and longer-term assistance to Haiti, which even before the disaster was already the poorest state in the Western Hemisphere.

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