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Faces of afflicted as Haiti lies in ruins after quake

DAZED and injured Haitians sat on darkened streets pleading for help today and untold numbers were trapped in tons of rubble brought down by the strongest earthquake to hit this poor Caribbean nation in more than 200 years.

Destroyed communications made it impossible to tell the extent of destruction from yesterday afternoon's 7.0-magnitude tremor – or to estimate the number of dead lying among thousands of collapsed buildings in Haiti's capital of about two million people.

The ornate National Palace crumbled into itself, the headquarters of the UN peacekeeping mission collapsed and swathes of rickety shacks lay in shambles.

Clouds of dust thrown up by falling buildings choked Portau- Prince for hours.

International Red Cross spokesman Paul Conneally said an estimated three million people may have been affected by the quake and that it would take days for a clear picture of the damage to emerge.

The United States and other nations began organising aid efforts, alerting search teams and gathering supplies that will be badly needed in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere's poorest country. The Red Cross and other aid groups announced a major relief operations.

The damage was staggering even for a country long accustomed to tragedy and disaster.

Aftershocks rattled the city as women covered in dust clawed out of debris, wailing. Stunned people wandered the streets holding hands. Thousands gathered in public squares long after nightfall, singing hymns.

It was clear tens of thousands lost their homes and many perished in collapsed buildings flimsy and dangerous even under normal conditions.

“The hospitals cannot handle all these victims,” Dr. Louis- Gerard Gilles, a former senator, said as he helped survivors.

“Haiti needs to pray. We all need to pray together.”

At a destroyed four-story apartment building, a girl of about 16 stood on top of a car, trying to peer inside while several men pulled at a foot sticking from rubble. The girl said her family was inside.

UN peacekeepers were distracted from aid efforts by their own tragedy. Many spent the night after the quake hunting for survivors in the ruins of their headquarters. Some 9,000 peacekeepers have been in Haiti since a 2004 rebellion ousted the president. Dozens are feared dead.

Much of the National Palace pancaked on itself, but President Rene Preval and his wife were said to have survived.

The quake struck at 4.53 pm. just 10 miles west of Port-au- Prince. US geologists called it the strongest earthquake since 1770 in what is now Haiti.

“Everybody is just totally, totally freaked out and shaken,” said Henry Bahn, a US Department of Agriculture official visiting Port-au-Prince. “The sky is just gray with dust.”

President Barack Obama offered prayers for the people of Haiti and said the US stood ready to help.