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Haiti: Stunned UN Faces Own Tragedy and Gigantic Relief Effort (UPDATE)

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UNITED NATIONS - The United Nations has probably suffered the worst one-day calamity ever, with more than 150 military and civilian staff believed buried in the rubble of Haiti's earthquake. The loss of life is even larger than the terrorist bombing in Baghdad in 2003 that killed 22 people, including the Sergio Vieira de Mello, the chief UN envoy in Iraq.

Obviously, the number is small compared to the thousands of Haitians dying under collapsed buildings or clawing their way out of the debris, from those living in hovels to parliamentarians near the destroyed presidential palace. The Red Cross estimates 3 million out of a population of 9 million were touched by the quake that struck at 5 p.m. on Tuesday.

But for the United Nations, which has a 9,000-strong peacekeeping force and hundreds of civilian staff meant to restore order and help develop the Caribbean nation, the blow is a catastrophe.

One victim may be Hedi Annabi of Tunisia, head of the UN mission in Haiti and a former assistant secretary-general for global UN peacekeeping. He was meeting a visiting Chinese police delegation of eight when the UN headquarters in the Christopher Hotel in Port-au-Prince crumbled. His deputy, Brazilian Luiz Carlos da Costa is also missing as are the Chinese.

The United Nations would not confirm Annabi's death, a soft spoken 65-year old with a wry sense of humor who joined the UN in 1981. On Thursday, the United Nations confirmed 22 deaths among military personand police officers and 56 inured in the Christopher Hotel. Most of the survivors were on the lower floors. One bodyguard, identified as Tarmo Joveer of Estonia was rescued early Thursday.

"We are only giving confirmed fatalities," Alain Le Roy, the undersecretary-general for peacekeeping, told reporters. "

Not everyone was at the Christopher Hotel. Brazilian peacekeepers died at their checkpoint when a building collapsed on top of it. Helen Clarke, head of the UN Development Program, said she could not account for 38 of her staff who lived in the Montana Hotel, which also fell. The UN has nearly 500 international civilians and 1,200 Haitians in its mission

Susana Malcorra of Argentina, an undersecretary-general in charge of field support, said sensor equipment was lacking to see who was still alive under the rubble. "The (UN) engineers are working hard but they don't have the expertise to handle this type of destruction. That is one of the reasons why things are moving slower than we would like." Late on Thursday several countries, including the United States and China, have sent in teams for this purpose.

She said few had families with them and many called to ask about their loved. "It is not an easy conversation."

Wounded on doors and makeshift stretchers

One survivor is Michele Montas, the just retired UN spokeswoman, who was visiting her family and sent an email to colleagues from Port-au-Prince.:

"The city is 80% destroyed. I saw hundreds of bodies in the street this morning and people trying to reach survivors under the buildings and carrying the wounded on doors and makeshift stretchers."

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters she would be recruited to help the UN in Haiti,. Montas is the widow of Jean Dominique, a noted journalist assassinated in 2000 and the subject of a John Demme documentary "The Agronomist." Her life frequently threatened, Montas travels with security on her visits home)

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Wednesday dispatched Edmond Molet of Guatemala, an assistant secretary-general for peacekeeping, who had held Annabi's job in Haiti and replaced him in New York. With a team of specialists, he will reach Haiti on Friday, flown in by the United States.

Ban told reporters he had been unable to reach Haitian President Rene Preval, who told CNN Annabi had perished, without saying how he knew. But Ban had spoken to President Obama, presumably on allowing Molet to do most of the relief coordination.

As a visibly shaken Molet spoke to reporters on Wednesday, several UN staff, some Haitian, stood nearby wept and begged for information about colleagues and family.

The harrowing day in New York ended with Bill Clinton, a special UN envoy for Haitian development, addressing a special session of the 192-member UN General Assembly with scores of nations offering aid. The former US president warned them not to send anything "that you imagine will be needed " because "we do not have the logistical and organization capacity right now."

Relief groups tripping over each other: Clinton

"For the next 10 days we need water, food, shelter and first aid supplies," he told the assembly. "We've got to find out who is alive and prepare for the people who are dead. We have 1,000 details to work out."

And the most important immediate remedy is cash. Clinton has worried about coordination since the 2004 Asian tsunami where he served as a special UN envoy and believes the UN and its agencies should organize relief along with the host government. Haiti, he told reporters last summer, had aid and advocacy groups tripping over each other, with more non-governmental organizations per capita "than any other nation in the world" except for India.

Still, the United States is getting there first and mobilizing a massive effort, taking over the airport (which now has no tower but functioning runways). The first U.S. disaster response teams are on the ground, the US Coast Guard is at the airport assisting and the US Air force will soon arrive there, Rosemary DiCarlo, the deputy US ambassador, told the Assembly. In addition four Coast Guard cutters have been deployed to help with water supplies and medical care. And countless aid packages are en route.

Haiti, known for its musicians and artists, is the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere with impenetrable roads, a crumbling infrastructure, illiteracy and a barely functioning judicial system.

In 2008 it suffered from four hurricanes that killed 800 people, destroyed about 100,000 homes and cost $1 billion in damages. This time Bill Clinton and UN officials thought it would be different, with a fairly competent government, a detailed recovery plan and a measure of security from UN peacekeepers.

One UN official, who just returned from Haiti, last month complained about unnecessary "hardship" pay civilian staff received, although most lived quite well in a beautiful country.

That was then. This is now.

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Hedi Annabi