US Black Hawk helicopters swooped down on Haiti’s wrecked presidential palace to deploy troops and supplies, as a huge relief operation to help earthquake survivors gained momentum.
The airborne troops in combat gear moved to secure Port-au-Prince’s nearby General Hospital, where staff have been overwhelmed by huge numbers of seriously injured patients.
Their dramatic deployment to help speed up logjammed aid efforts brought crowds of quake survivors camped out in the park opposite the palace rushing to its iron railings to gawk and beg for handouts of food.
It was the most visible and potentially sensitive deployment so far by the US military, which is spearheading international efforts to assist millions of Haitians left injured or homeless by the devastating earthquake a week ago.
The commander of the US troops in Haiti, Lieutenant General Ken Keen, said their primary purpose was humanitarian assistance and providing food and water to Haitians, but that there was also a security element to the operation.
“Security goes hand-in-hand with our mission,” he told CNN at the hospital protected by his men.
Watching the soldiers, quake survivor Gille Frantz said: “We know the world wants to help us, but it has been eight days now and I have not seen any food or water for my family.”
Major General Daniel Allyn says more US Marines are also on the way to help in quake-hit areas outside Port-au-Prince.
“[We] will move about 800 Marines ashore, beginning today, to support communities west of Port-au-Prince that gravely need assistance,” he said.
The US military says it will have two new landing strips working in the next two days to help ease congestion at the Port-au-Prince airport.
Haitian President Rene Preval says US troops will help UN peacekeepers bring order to the capital’s increasingly lawless streets.
While the additional troops are very welcome in the country, people camped out in the parks and in the streets say they are getting more desperate as meagre food resources run out.
One man told the ABC that if help did not arrive soon his family would starve.
Any food distribution is made more difficult because of the risk of riots whenever UN patrol trucks are seen. Devising an effective and orderly system appears to be beyond the authorities.
But the US ambassador in Haiti, Kenneth Merten, says although security has been a concern the situation is “calm”.
“I would emphasise that by and large, the security situation has been quite good,” he told reporters.
“Haitian people have been very patient, have been calm. The Haitian police have been on the streets.
“They were on the streets in significantly greater numbers yesterday. We anticipate they will probably be in greater numbers today.”
The UN Security Council has voted to dispatch an extra 2,000 troops and 1,500 police to Haiti for a period of six months, swelling the number of UN military and civilian forces in Haiti to around 14,500.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said the decision sent a clear signal that the world was with Haiti, and thanked members for their swift decision.
Mr Ban also told journalists that capacity at the small and damaged airport was improving and one of the main ports would be ready to begin operating soon.