France’s foreign minister says the head of the U.N. mission in Haiti appears to have died in the earthquake.

Bernard Kouchner told two French radio stations that his information about Tunisian diplomat Hedi Annabi had come from the French ambassador in Haiti.

Mr. Kouchner said on RFI radio on Wednesday that the ambassador had visited the devastated U.N. headquarters building in Port-au-Prince and said “everyone who was in the building is apparently dead” including Annabi.

Injured Haitians plead for help after quake

Haitians piled bodies along the devastated streets of their capital on Wednesday after the strongest earthquake hit the poor Caribbean nation in more than 200 years crushed thousands of structures, from humble shacks to the National Palace and the U.N. peacekeeping headquarters. Untold numbers were still trapped.

Destroyed communications made it impossible to tell the extent of destruction from Tuesday afternoon’s 7.0-magnitude tremor, or to estimate how many were dead among the collapsed buildings in Haiti’s capital of about 2 million people.

International Red Cross spokesman Paul Conneally said an estimated 3 million people may have been affected by the quake and that it would take a day or two for a clear picture of the damage to emerge. Clouds of dust thrown up by falling buildings choked Port-au-Prince for hours.

The United States and other nations began organising aid efforts, alerting search teams and gathering supplies that will be badly needed in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country. The international Red Cross and other aid groups announced plans for major relief operations.

“Haiti has moved to center of the world’s thoughts and the world’s compassion,” said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown.

Associated Press journalists based in Port-au-Prince found the damage staggering even for a country long accustomed to tragedy and disaster.

Aftershocks rattled the city as women covered in dust clawed out of debris, wailing. Stunned people wandered the streets holding hands. Thousands gathered in public squares long after nightfall, singing hymns.

It was clear tens of thousands lost their homes and many perished in collapsed buildings flimsy and dangerous even under normal conditions.

“The hospitals cannot handle all these victims,” Dr. Louis-Gerard Gilles, a former senator, said as he helped survivors. “Haiti needs to pray. We all need to pray together.”

An Associated Press videographer saw a wrecked hospital where people screamed for help in Petionville, a hillside Port-au-Prince district that is home to many diplomats and wealthy Haitians as well as the poor.

At a destroyed four-storey apartment building, a girl of about 16 stood atop a car, trying to peer inside while several men pulled at a foot sticking from rubble. The girl said her family was inside.

U.N. peacekeepers attempt rescue

U.N. peacekeepers, most of whom are from Brazil, looked for survivors in the ruins of what had been their five-storey headquarters. U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy said late Tuesday that “as we speak no one has been rescued.”

Mr. Le Roy said many U.N. personnel were missing, including mission chief Hedi Annabi, who was in the building when the quake struck. Some 9,000 peacekeepers have been in Haiti since a 2004 rebellion ousted the president.

Much of the National Palace pancaked on itself, but Haiti’s ambassador to Mexico, Robert Manuel, said President Rene Preval and his wife survived the earthquake. He had no details.

Strongest quake since 1770

The 7.0-magnitude quake struck at 4:53 p.m. local time Tuesday, centred 15 km west of Port-au-Prince at a depth of just 8 km, the U.S. Geological Survey said. USGS geophysicist Kristin Marano called it the strongest earthquake since 1770 in what is now Haiti.

The temblor appeared to have occurred along a strike-slip fault, where one side of a vertical fault slips horizontally past the other, said Tom Jordan, a quake expert at the University of Southern California. The quake’s power and proximity to Port-au-Prince likely caused widespread casualties and structural damage, he said.

“It’s going to be a real killer,” he said.

Most of Haiti’s 9 million people are desperately poor, and after years of political instability the country has no real construction standards. In November 2008, following the collapse of a school in Petionville, the mayor of Port-au-Prince estimated about 60 percent of buildings were shoddily built and unsafe in normal circumstances.

Quake felt across border

Tuesday’s quake was felt in the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, but no major damage was reported there. In eastern Cuba, houses shook but no significant damage was reported.

With electricity knocked out in many places and phone service erratic, it was nearly impossible for Haitian or foreign officials to get full details of the devastation.

In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said that U.S. Embassy personnel were “literally in the dark” after power failed.

“They reported structures down. They reported a lot of walls down. They did see a number of bodies in the street and on the sidewalk that had been hit by debris. So clearly, there’s going to be serious loss of life in this,” he said.

The Diocese of Norwich, Connecticut, said at least two Americans working at its Haitian aid mission were believed trapped in rubble.

“Everybody is just totally, totally freaked out and shaken,” said Henry Bahn, a U.S. Department of Agriculture official visiting Port-au-Prince. “The sky is just gray with dust.”

President Barack Obama offered prayers for the people of Haiti and said the U.S. stood ready to help. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. was offering full assistance — civilian and military — and a national organization of registered nurses called for nurse volunteers to provide care in Haiti.

Venezuela’s government said it would send a military plane with canned foods, medicine and drinking water and provide 50 rescue workers.

Mexico, which suffered an earthquake in 1985 that killed some 10,000 people, planned to send doctors, search and rescue dogs and infrastructure damage experts.

Edwidge Danticat, a Haitian-American author whose books about Haiti have won the National Book Award and the Pushcart Prize, was unable to contact relatives in Haiti. She sat with family and friends at her home in Miami, looking for news on the Internet and watching TV news reports.

“You want to go there, but you just have to wait,” she said. “Life is already so fragile in Haiti, and to have this on such a massive scale, it’s unimaginable how the country will be able to recover from this.”

Twitter tells the early story

With phone service erratic, much of the early communication came from social media such as Twitter. Richard Morse, a well-known musician who manages the famed Olafson Hotel, kept up a stream of dispatches on the aftershocks and damage reports. The news, based mostly on second-hand reports and photos, was disturbing, with people screaming in fear and roads blocked with debris. Belair, a slum even in the best of times, was said to be “a broken mess.”

“Everybody is just totally, totally freaked out and shaken,” said Henry Bahn, a U.S. Department of Agriculture official visiting Port-au-Prince. “The sky is just gray with dust.

Bahn said there were rocks strewn about and he saw a ravine where several homes had stood: “It’s just full of collapsed walls and rubble and barbed wire.”

In the community of Thomassin, just outside Port-au-Prince, Alain Denis said neighbours told him the only road to the capital had been cut and phones were all dead so it was hard to determine the extent of the damage.

“At this point, everything is a rumour,” he said. “It’s dark. It’s night-time.”

Jocelyn Valcin, a resident of Boynton Beach, Florida, who flew in to Miami International Airport from Port-au-Prince on Tuesday evening, said he was at the airport when the earthquake hit.

“The whole building was cracked down,” Valcin said. “The whole outside deteriorated.”

Will help the nation recover and rebuild: Bill Clinton

Former President Bill Clinton, the U.N.’s special envoy for Haiti, issued a statement saying his office would do whatever he could to help the nation recover and rebuild.

“My thoughts and prayers are with the people of Haiti,” he said.

The U.S. was sending disaster rescue teams and President Barack Obama said the U.S. stood ready to help Haiti. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said from Honolulu that the U.S. was offering full assistance — civilian and military.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro said his government planned to send a military aircraft carrying canned foods, medicine and drinking water and also would dispatch a team of 50 rescue workers.

Mexico, which suffered a devastating earthquake in 1985 that killed some 10,000 people, was sending a team including doctors, search and rescue dogs and infrastructure damage experts, said Salvador Beltran, the undersecretary of foreign relations for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Haitian musician Wyclef Jean urged his fans to donate to earthquake relief efforts: “We must think ahead for the aftershock, the people will need food, medicine, shelter, etc.,” Jean said on his Web site.

Eva DeHart at the humanitarian organisation For Haiti With Love in Palm Harbor, Florida, said colleagues at the group’s base in Cap Haitien reported that northern town was spared damage. But she said damage to government buildings in the capital would make coordinating aid difficult.

In Miami’s Little Haiti neighbourhood, dozens of people gathered at the Veye-Yo community centre, where a pastor led them in prayer. Members embraced each other as they tried to contact relatives back home.

Tony Jeanthenor said he had succeeded in reaching a family friend in Haiti who told of hearing people cry out for help from under debris.

“The level of anxiety is high,” Mr. Jeanthenor said. “Haiti has been through trauma since 2004, from coup d’etat to hurricanes, now earthquakes.”

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