Earthquake death toll rising after Haiti's day of devastation

• Fears death toll could rise above 100,000
• Frantic search for survivors in ruined buildings
• Biggest tremor in Haiti in 200 years

Haiti's president tonight issued a ­desperate appeal for international aid following the earthquake that has ­devastated his country, as fears grew that the death toll could rise above 100,000.

René Préval said the damage caused by the magnitude 7.0 tremor was "un­imaginable" and appealed for help, describing hearing the screams of those trapped under collapsed buildings while he and his wife stepped over bodies lying in the streets.

"Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed. There are a lot of schools that have a lot of dead people in them. All of the hospitals are packed with people. It is a catastrophe," said Préval.

With chaotic scenes in and around the capital, Port-au-Prince, officials said it was impossible to gauge accurately the scale of the disaster, but the country's prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, told CNN the final death toll could be well over 100,000. "I hope that is not true … But so many, so many buildings, so many neighbourhoods are totally destroyed, and some neighbourhoods we don't even see people, so I don't know where those people are."

Haitian senator Youri Latortue told Associated Press that 500,000 might be dead. Both men admitted that they had no way of knowing.

One third of the country's 9 million people could need emergency aid, according to the International Federation of the Red Cross. Many thousands are homeless and sleeping in the streets. Witnesses described dazed survivors wandering the streets holding hands amid choking clouds of dust, as powerful aftershocks continued to rock the city.

Governments across the world have pledged urgent aid following Tuesday's tremor, with Barack Obama promising "a swift, coordinated, and aggressive effort to save lives", and pledging $10m (£6m). US ships with helicopters are in the area and an aircraft carrier will arrive tomorrow. The US secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, last night cut short a tour of the Pacific islands and Asia to return to Washington to deal with the disaster.

Douglas Alexander, the international development secretary, said Britain would ­provide "whatever humanitarian assistance is required". A team of 71 search and rescue members, two search dogs and eight NGO experts left Britain for Haiti last night.

Gordon Brown said he was "deeply saddened and worried" by the disaster. The Foreign Office said no British nationals were thought to be among the casualties.

Canada, China, France, Germany, Iceland, Mexico and Venezuela also pledged personnel, cash and supplies. The UN, which said 10 of its staff have died and 150 more are missing, is to release £6m of its emergency response fund. The French foreign minister said his country's aid efforts were on a "war footing". The World Bank pledged an extra $100m in aid.

The earthquake, the most powerful to hit Haiti in 200 years, struck at 4.53pm local time (9.53pm GMT) yesterday, about 10 miles from Port-au-Prince. Seismologists said it was a shallow tremor, causing greater shaking at surface level.

Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere and thousands live in poor quality shacks, many of which were immediately toppled by the quake.

The headquarters of the UN peacekeeping mission fell, with 100 to 150 people still unaccounted for, the organisation said. "It would appear that everyone who was in the building, including my friend Hedi Annabi, the UN secretary general's special envoy, and everyone with him and around him, are dead," said the French foreign minister, Bernard Kouchner. The UN could not confirm the deaths.

Images from the country's capital show the ornate presidential palace and national cathedral reduced to rubble, along with the country's parliament building, where the senate president was among those trapped. The UN said the capital's main prison had also collapsed, allowing some inmates to flee.

Reporters described survivors clawing their way from under debris, while thousands gathered in the comparative safety of public squares to sing hymns. Hours after the quake, severely injured survivors were still lying in the streets pleading for medical help. One AP film-maker described seeing a girl of 16 standing on a car peering into a ruined building while men pulled at a foot sticking from rubble. The girl said her family was inside.

"The hospitals cannot handle all these victims," Louis-Gerard Gilles, a doctor and former senator, told AP. "Haiti needs to pray. We all need to pray together."

Contributors

Esther Addley and Rory Carroll, Latin America correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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