The United Nations said yesterday at least 16 people at its peacekeeping mission in Haiti died when its headquarters and other buildings collapsed in an earthquake and predicted the death toll would soar.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said 11 Brazilians, three Jordanians, one Argentinean and one Chadian had died in the earthquake on Tuesday. Susana Malcorra, a senior UN peacekeeping official, put the preliminary figure for the number of injured at 56.
UN peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy said the UN death toll was expected to rise sharply as rescue workers searched the rubble of the five-story headquarters and other buildings.
“The number of casualties and fatalities will be extremely high,” he told reporters.
Le Roy and Malcorra said around 150 UN staff members were still missing, among them the head of the MINUSTAH peacekeeping mission in Haiti, Hedi Annabi, and his deputy.
Haitian President Rene Preval declared that Annabi, a Tunisian believed to be aged 65, had been confirmed dead, but UN officials cast doubt on his remarks.
“We are aware of the news reports attributed to President Preval that Annabi has been confirmed to have been killed,” UN peacekeeping spokesman Nicholas Birnback said.
“We’ve been in touch with the UN mission in Haiti and with the permanent mission of Haiti to the United Nations, and neither has been able to confirm this information,” he said, adding that the world body was urgently seeking clarification of Preval’s remarks.
Le Roy said Annabi was in the building at the time of the earthquake and that he was believed to be among those trapped in the rubble of the MINUSTAH headquarters.
UN spokesperson Martin Nesirky said the damage to the nation was vast and “tens, if not hundreds of thousands of homes” had been damaged in the earthquake, which struck late Tuesday afternoon.
The UN mission was headquartered in the former Christopher Hotel in the capital Port-au-Prince, where administrative staff worked. Most of MINUSTAH’s 9000 troops and police were located elsewhere.
Search and rescue
UN humanitarian affairs chief John Holmes said earlier that between 3 million and 3.5 million people were living in areas affected by severe shaking during the earthquake and its aftershocks. It was not clear how many people had died.
“Initial reports suggest a high number of casualties,” Holmes said. Preval said he had heard total death toll estimates as high as 50 000.
The main priority, Holmes said, was search-and-rescue operations to find and extract buried people. He said a Chinese team had arrived at the airport in Port-au-Prince and that two US teams were expected later yesterday.
Further search-and-rescue teams were expected to arrive from France, Iceland and the neighbouring Dominican Republic in the near future, he said.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was sending Le Roy’s deputy, Edmond Mulet, to Haiti. Le Roy said Mulet would arrive and take over as the acting head of MINUSTAH on Thursday as rescue workers search for Annabi.
The UN chief also said $10 million would be released immediately from the world body’s central emergency response fund to assist aid efforts.
Holmes said the United Nations would launch a flash appeal to raise more funds for Haiti over the next few days. Ban said the world body would later organize a donors’ conference to help Haiti recover from the earthquake.