The U.S. military’s takeover of emergency operations in Haiti has triggered a diplomatic row with countries and aid agencies furious at having flights redirected. Brazil and France lodged an official protest with Washington after U.S. military aircraft were given priority at Port-au-Prince’s congested airport, forcing many non-U.S. flights to divert to the Dominican Republic.

Brasilia warned it would not relinquish command of United Nations forces in Haiti and Paris complained the airport had become a U.S. “annexe,” exposing a brewing power struggle amid the global relief effort. The Red Cross and Medecins Sans Frontieres also complained about diverted flights. The row prompted Haiti’s President, Rene Preval, to call for calm.

The squabbling came amid signs that aid was reaching some of the hundreds of thousands of people in desperate need of water, food and medicine six days after a magnitude 7 earthquake levelled the capital, killing more than 100,000, according to Haitian authorities.

The U.N. was feeding 40,000 and hoped to increase that to 1 million within a fortnight, said the Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, as he boarded a flight for Port-au-Prince on Sunday. “I’m going there with a very heavy heart. The damage, destruction, loss of life is just overwhelming.” The challenge was to co-ordinate relief efforts, he said. “We should not waste a single item, a single dollar, just to wait in a warehouse.”

The plight of 80 elderly people at a partially collapsed municipal hospice just a mile from the airport, now a huge aid hub, showed the desperate need. The body of a dead 70-year-old man rotted on a mattress, nearly indistinguishable from the exhausted, hungry and thirsty people around him.

The Haitian government has established 14 food distribution points and aid groups have opened five emergency health centres. Water-purification units — a priority to avert disease and dehydration — were arriving. But with aftershocks jolting the ruins, bloated bodies in the street and severe shortages of water and food many survivors had had enough: an exodus trekked on foot out of the city to rural areas.

The security situation worsened, with some looters fighting with rocks and clubs for rice, clothing and other goods scavenged from debris. In places the embryonic aid machine did not even try to organise distribution. Aid workers tossed out food packets to crowds and U.S. helicopters took off as soon as they offloaded supplies, prompting scrambles in which the fittest prevailed.

Frustration over aid bottlenecks among donors became tinged by national rivalry as it became clear the U.S. was taking ownership of the crisis. A vanguard of more than 1,000 U.S. troops was on the ground and 12,000 were expected in the region by Monday, including marines aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson which anchored offshore as a “floating airport.”

The Haitian government, paralysed by the destruction of the presidential palace and ministries, signed a Memorandum of Understanding transferring control of Toussaint L’Ouverture airport to the U.S. Hillary Clinton flew in on Saturday and met Mr. Preval near the airport. “We will be here today, tomorrow and for the time ahead,” she said.

The U.N. mission, which had a 9,000-strong peacekeeping force in Haiti before the quake, seemed too stunned by its own losses to take control. Its dead include its Tunisian head, Hedi Annabi, his Brazilian deputy, Luiz Carlos da Costa, and the acting Police Commissioner, Doug Coates. The Obama administration has enlisted former Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton to spearhead relief efforts. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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