Haitian elections suspended amid recovery efforts
Three weeks after a massive earthquake, Haitian authorities on Tuesday indefinitely postponed upcoming legislative elections amid rising security concerns in the crippled Caribbean nation.
Aid workers, meanwhile, began to reunite with their families some of the 33 children that a US missionary group tried to sneak out of the country last week without government authorization.
Justice officials said the 10 Americans behind the alleged abductions, who are still to be charged, might have to be tried in the United States because of the post-quake chaos.
The Haitian government has been left largely dysfunctional since the 7.0-magnitude January 12 quake, which killed an estimated 170,000 people and left many official buildings in ruins.
“The electoral council has decided to postpone the legislative elections of February 28 and March 3, 2010, to a later unspecified date,” the authorities announced on Tuesday.
The polls had been set to decide the fate of all 99 seats in the House and one third of the seats in the Senate.
Security concerns were also raised when the United Nations revealed that armed men had attempted to hijack a food convoy at a road near Haiti’s Jeremie airport at the weekend.
The UN Bureau for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Geneva said “warning shots were fired” during Saturday’s incident and assessed that the situation in Haiti is “stable but potentially volatile.”
The security situation is one of the main concerns of international relief teams and residents of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, which had been hit by looting following the disaster.
An abduction controversy is also overshadowing the ongoing relief effort that is still struggling to feed, house and care for an estimated one million homeless Haitians.
As many survivors still gasp for food, water, shelter and medical help, officials have the added headache of deciding what to do with the group of Americans whose apparently well-intentioned meddling could land them in jail.
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Haitian police are still questioning the five men and five women from the Idaho-based New Life Children’s Refuge, who face possible charges of criminal conspiracy, kidnapping minors and child-trafficking.
Police seized the US nationals, along with two Haitians, as they tried to cross into the neighboring Dominican Republic late Friday with the children — some babies as young as two months, others up to 12 years old.
“The parents now are coming to the village to reclaim their children,” said Heather Paul, the CEO of SOS Children’s Villages USA, the aid group now caring for the children.
“We already hear that many are saying that we (they) have parents,” Paul told NBC.
Gervais Charles, president of the Port-au-Prince Bar, said the nation’s justice system would struggle to cope with a high-profile abduction trial.
“We have lost the foundations of our justice system. It is a very difficult moment for us, as we have no idea how we are going to rebuild,” Charles said as he joined colleagues in a ceremony for colleagues killed by the quake.
“In the current situation, in and such a case, we need a quick trial. But in the current conditions that is practically impossible. So I would not rule out transferring the American citizens to America if the American system is competent, especially now that we have recovered the children.”
Guetchine G. Ordalus, a member of the Haiti Bar Association, voiced his anger at the row.
“Our country has been destroyed by an earthquake, and is a nation known for its economic and social problems. But that doesn’t mean that foreigners can come here and take children away so easily.”
Laura Silsby, the detained head of New Life Children’s Refuge, has insisted the group simply wanted to give the children a better life in an orphanage it planned to set up in the Dominican Republic.
“We came here literally to just help the children. Our intentions were good,” she told AFP from police detention. “We wanted to help those who lost parents in the quake or were abandoned.”
Meanwhile, UN officials said nearly half a million people had fled Port-au-Prince for the countryside since the quake, doubling a previous estimate of 235,000.
OCHA said 90 percent were staying with relatives, but the prices of basic commodities such as rice and sugar were rising and medical centers were short of supplies and equipment.