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Prayers of thanks amid scenes from hell as rage mounts over aid delays

Prayers of thanksgiving and cries for help rose from Haiti's huddled homeless, the sixth day of an epic humanitarian crisis that was straining the world's ability to respond and igniting flare-ups of violence amid the rubble of Port-au-Prince.

Haitian police struggled to scatter hundreds of stone-throwing looters in the city's Vieux Marche.

Elsewhere downtown, amid the smoke from bonfires burning uncollected bodies, gunfire rang out and bands of machete-wielding young men roamed the streets, faces hidden by bandanas.

A leading aid group complained of skewed priorities and a supply bottleneck at the US-controlled airport.

The general in charge said the US military was "working aggressively" to speed up deliveries.


Beside the ruins of the Port-Au-Prince cathedral, where the sun streamed through the shattered stained glass, the priest told his flock at their first Sunday Mass since Tuesday's earthquake: "We are in the hands of God now."

But anger mounted hourly that other helping hands were slow in getting food and water to millions in need.

"The government is a joke. The UN is a joke," Jacqueline Thermiti (71) said as she lay in the dust with dozens of dying elderly outside their destroyed nursing home.

"We're a kilometre from the airport and we're going to die of hunger."

Hours later, a frail resident of the home perished in the afternoon heat. Water was delivered to more people around the capital but food and medicine were still scarce.

The crippled city choked on the stench of death and shook with yet another aftershock. On the streets, people were still dying, people were on their knees praying for help, pregnant women were giving birth on the pavement, and the injured were showing up in wheelbarrows and on people's backs at hurriedly erected field hospitals.

Authorities warned that looting and violence could spread.

At the Vieux Marche, police tried to disperse looters by driving trucks through the crowds, as hundreds scrambled over partly destroyed shops grabbing anything they could.

"This is one of the most serious crises in decades," UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said as he flew into the Haitian capital. "The damage, destruction and loss of life are just overwhelming."

A reliable death toll may be weeks away, but the Pan American Health Organisation estimates 50,000 to 100,000 died in the seven-magnitude tremor.

Celebrating Mass outside the once-proud pink-and-white cathedral, now a shell of rubble where a rotting body lay in the entrance, Father Eric Toussaint preached of thanksgiving to a small congregation of old women and other haggard survivors assembled under the open sky. "Why give thanks to God? Because we are here," Fr Toussaint said.

"What happened is the will of God. We are in the hands of God now."

But others were angry.

"It's a catastrophe and it is God who has put this upon us," said Jean-Andre Noel (39), a computer technician.

In a further sign of the delays, the aid group Care had yet to set a plan for distributing 38 tons of WFP high-energy biscuits in outlying areas of Haiti, Care spokesman Brian Feagans said. He did not say why.


The Geneva-based aid group Doctors Without Borders put it bluntly: "There is little sign of significant aid distribution."

The "major difficulty," it said, was the bottleneck at the airport, under US military control. French, Brazilian and other officials had earlier complained about the US-run airport's refusal to allow their supply planes to land.

The US has completely taken over Port-au-Prince airspace and incoming flights have to register with Tyndall Air Force Base in Florida, said Chief Master Sergeant Ty Foster.

"You won't have the stray cats and dogs allowed to come into the airspace and clog it up," he said.