France hopes to 'turn pages of history' with €326m in Haiti aid
Sarkozy tells desperate population of former colony they 'are not alone'
French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced a financial aid package worth more than €320m yesterday to assist quake-hit Haiti, as he became France's first head of state to visit the former French Caribbean colony.
The announcement came as economists from the Inter-American Development Bank put the estimated cost of rebuilding the shattered country at $14bn (€10bn), making it proportionately the most destructive and expensive natural disaster in modern times.
Mr Sarkozy's support package totalling €326m included the cancellation of e56m of debt, €100m of fresh funds to be provided over two years and €65m to be channelled through the EU.
"I have come to tell Haiti's people that they are not alone . . . France will be at your side in the long term," Mr Sarkozy told a news conference in the grounds of the Haitian presidential palace, which partly collapsed in the January 12 earthquake.
More than 200,000 people were killed and more than a million were left homeless by the quake, which has triggered a big international relief effort and reconstruction plans by foreign donors.
Speaking alongside Haitian President Rene Preval, Mr Sarkozy said his visit, the first ever by a French president to Haiti, aimed to "turn the page" on France's long history of troubled relations with its former Caribbean territory.
Haiti wrested its independence from France in 1804 after a bloody revolt by black slaves.
Speaking earlier at the French Embassy in Port-au-Prince after flying by helicopter over the worst-damaged areas of the city, Mr Sarkozy ruled out any idea of "international stewardship" over Haiti while foreign donors assisted in its recovery.
"International aid must be massive and be there for the long term," he said, while stressing that the recovery project would remain under the control of the Haitian government.
In a sprawling tent city housing thousands of quake survivors in front of the palace, a group of demonstrators, supporters of former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, staged a protest against Mr Preval's government and against Mr Sarkozy's visit.
But other Haitians said they were happy Mr Sarkozy had come to help Haiti with rebuild ing after the catastrophic natural disaster.
"Our ancestors built our independence and France was angry, but that's forgotten now and Mr Sarkozy has come to give millions to Haiti. That will encourage other leaders to come to help us," said Guillaume Imondial (29), as he peered through the iron railings of the damaged palace.
Meanwhile, a Haitian judge last night said he would order the release of eight of 10 American missionaries accused of kidnapping children, while the remaining two would be held for further questioning.
The 10 Americans, most of whom are members of an Idaho-based Baptist Church, were arrested last month on charges that they tried to take 33 Haitian children out of the country without proper documentation after the devastating quake.