NEW YORK // The UN secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, called on donors to urgently help Haiti yesterday in the wake of the Caribbean nation's worst earthquake in more than 200 years as the nation's president René Préval said he believed thousands of people had been killed. More than 100 UN staff members are still missing two days after a deadly earthquake flattened much of Haiti's capital, a United Nations spokeswoman said today. "Over 100 people are unaccounted for," said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman of the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The UN was "very anxious, not just for international staff but also national staff from whom we have no news," she said.
Last night, as many survivors remained trapped under rubble, his prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, put the figure even higher, saying he believed more than 100,000 people could have perished. Mr Ban promised the UN would "stand firm" and co-ordinate the humanitarian response to the magnitude-7.0 earthquake, epicentred just 15km from the capital, Port-au-Prince, that sent thousands of buildings crashing to the ground.
These included the presidential palace, parliamentary buildings and the UN headquarters in Haiti at the Christopher Hotel, a five-storey structure that was occupied by as many as 250 staff when the earthquake struck shortly before 5pm on Tuesday. The number of casualties remained unclear yesterday, when rescue teams started digging survivors and bodies from the rubble after a night of efforts hampered by darkness, with Mr Ban saying the total death toll "may well be in the hundreds".
Amid reports of deaths of Jordanian, Chinese and Brazilian peacekeepers, the UN could confirm only that more than 100 UN staff were missing in the rubble of the collapsed headquarters building and nearly 40 other staff are unaccounted for in other damaged structures. "As you are aware, buildings and infrastructure were heavily damaged throughout the capital. Basic services such as water and electricity have collapsed almost entirely," Mr Ban said.
"There is no doubt that we are facing a major humanitarian emergency and that a major relief effort will be required." Witnesses described scenes of total chaos after the quake and at least six aftershocks sent buildings toppling and sparked fires across the chronically impoverished city, including a row of houses that collapsed into a ravine. With telephone systems down and limited electricity supplies hampering rescue efforts throughout the night, search teams began looking for survivors in earnest yesterday morning as UN peacekeepers started clearing roads and residents scoured fallen buildings for their loved ones.
Aid agencies estimate that three million people, or one-third of Haiti's population, have been affected by the earthquake, which struck just south-west of the densely populated capital city at 4.53pm, according to the UN. "Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed," the country's president Mr Préval told the Miami Herald yesterday. "It's hard to have a fair assessment of the number of victims. How many construction, how many building were collapsed. Typically with the inhabitants inside, I believe we are well over 100,000," Mr Bellerive told CNN. "I hope that is not true, because I hope the people had the time to get out ... But so many, so many buildings, so many neighbourhoods totally destroyed, and some neighbourhoods we don't even see people, so I don't know where those people are."
Mr Ban said US$10 million (Dh36.73m) had been released from the UN's emergency fund and he was liaising with Bill Clinton, the former US president and the UN's special envoy to Haiti, who is helping to co-ordinate relief efforts from the US. "I have spoken with Mr Clinton and we have agreed to mobilise our best assistance and rescue teams and try to reconstruct the Haitian economy," Mr Ban said. "The UN will do whatever possible to help the Haitian people to overcome these difficulties."
In a statement, Mr Clinton said: "My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Haiti. My UN office and the rest of the UN system are monitoring the situation, and we are committed to do whatever we can to assist the people of Haiti in their relief, rebuilding and recovery efforts." Efforts to communicate with UN staff in Haiti have been limited to satellite phone, and it remains unclear whether the world body's special representative there, the Tunisian diplomat Hedi Annabi, died in the headquarters collapse, where he was meeting a Chinese delegation.
The UN's director of humanitarian efforts, Sir John Holmes, said Haiti-based aid experts had begun assessing the scale of the damage and others were already on their way to co-ordinate relief efforts. Rescue teams from the United States, Canada, China, France, the Dominican Republic and other nations were headed to the Haitian capital and the UN would shortly launch a flash funding appeal, he added.
Josette Sheeran, the head of the World Food Program, said the UN agency was airlifting 86 tonnes of food from its hub in El Salvador to provide 500,000 emergency meals to those left homeless by the quake. "In the initial stages of this crisis, WFP will be providing significant quantities of ready-to-eat food that can be consumed immediately by those who have no access to cooking facilities," she said.
The UN peacekeeping chief, Alain Le Roy, could not confirm the number of UN staff deaths, saying rescue teams were currently digging through the rubble of the headquarters, located on the road from the city to the hillside district of Pétionville. But the absence of heavy equipment for lifting masses of fallen concrete and twisted steel was hampering efforts, with Mr Ban calling on the United States to "provide more logistical support and heavy equipment, and trained rescue and assistance teams".
About 3,000 blue-helmet soldiers are patrolling the city and have secured the airport and port, said Mr Le Roy, part of the 11,000-strong United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti that was brought in after a bloody 2004 rebellion and decades of violence. Three Jordanian peacekeepers, Major Atta Manasir, Major Asharf Jaiusi and Cpl Raed Khawaldeh, were killed and 21 comrades were injured from the country's 1,497-soldier deployment to Haiti, an army spokesman said in a statement.
The official Chinese media reported that eight Chinese peacekeepers have been buried under rubble and 10 others are missing, while Brazil's army said at least four Brazilian soldiers were killed and five injured. The Hotel Montana, the capital's main guesthouse where some UN staff were living, also collapsed, as did the building adjacent to the headquarters of the UN Development Program offices, leaving 38 staff unaccounted for.
Mr Le Roy said one good piece of news is that an early morning assessment found that the airport "is fully operational" which means planes carrying desperately-needed relief can start arriving quickly. @Email:email@example.com * with reporting from AP