Violence hindering aid work, US official says

Associated Press / January 18, 2010

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WASHINGTON - Some acts of violence in Haiti have hindered rescue workers trying to help earthquake victims, a top official leading the US government’s relief efforts said yesterday.

Providing humanitarian aid requires a safe and secure environment, said Lieutenant General Ken Keen of the US Southern Command. “We’ve had incidents of violence that impede our ability to support the government of Haiti and answer the challenges that this country faces,’’ he said.

Keen said that about 1,000 US troops are in Haiti, and that 3,000 more are working from ships. More than 12,000 US forces are expected to be in the region by today.

Fear of looters and robbers has been one of the factors slowing the delivery of food, water, and medical supplies to earthquake victims.

After the earthquake Tuesday, maintaining law and order fell to the 9,000 United Nations peacekeepers and international police already in Haiti, even though those forces also sustained heavy losses in the disaster.

Keen said US troops are working with UN peacekeepers, and that local police are beginning to assist in providing security.

As of yesterday, the State Department said the total number of confirmed US deaths was 16, including one embassy worker.

President Obama has issued an order allowing selected members of the military’s reserves to be called up to support operations in Haiti, the White House said yesterday.

Signed Saturday, the executive order permits the Defense Department and Homeland Security Department to tap reserve medical personnel and a Coast Guard unit that will help provide port security. The White House said the authority will be used on a limited basis. No numbers of personnel or names of units were provided.

Also yesterday, former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton appeared on five television talk shows as part of their effort to lead private fund-raising efforts for Haitian relief, including immediate needs and the long-term rebuilding effort. Obama asked them to lead the bipartisan effort.

“I’d say now is not the time to focus on politics,’’ Bush said. “There’s a great sense of desperation. And so my attention is on trying to help people deal with the desperation.’’

Bush said he does not know what critics are talking about when they claim Obama is trying to score political points with a broad response to Haiti’s woes. Radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh has urged people not to donate and said he would not trust that money donated to Haiti through the White House website would go to the relief efforts.

Clinton said, “I just think it doesn’t do us any good to waste any time in what is in my opinion a fruitless and pointless conversation.’’

Rajiv Shah, who leads the US Agency for International Development, said US relief workers are still trying to rescue people from under the damaged and destroyed buildings. “Our first priority was to go in with urban search and rescue teams,’’ said Shah, who visited Haiti on Saturday with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. “They work around the clock to try to save lives.’’

Rescuers, he said, still hoped to find more survivors buried in the rubble. “On next priority, which started in parallel, was getting those commodities down there and making sure we have the food, water, shelter, and basic needs met for the people of Haiti,’’ Shah said.

There have been 62 rescues, Tim Callaghan of the Agency for International Development said yesterday. American search and rescue teams had performed 29 of those rescues.