New York - United Nations (UN) Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has issued an urgent call to the international community to assist Haiti following Tuesday's catastrophic earthquake that has devastated the impoverished Caribbean nation's capital.
Buildings and infrastructure in Port-au-Prince suffered extensive damage, while basic services, including water and electricity are near the brink of collapse. The full extent of casualties is still unknown, Ban said.
Tens of thousands of people are living on the streets, while many more are still trapped under rubble. It is estimated that one-third of the nine million strong population of Haiti, the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, has been affected by the disaster.
"Clearly, a major relief effort will be required," the Secretary General told an informal emergency meeting of the General Assembly.
Joined by the UN Special Envoy for Haiti, former United States President Bill Clinton, Ban added that the crisis triggered by the 7.0 magnitude earthquake "rivals, if not exceeds," the damage wrought by a series of hurricanes that devastated Haiti in 2008.
The UN confirmed that 16 peacekeepers serving with the UN Stabilisation Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) died in the quake, and officials believe the number of fatalities is likely to rise in the coming days.
The Christopher Hotel, which houses the UN's headquarters, along with other buildings hosting the world body have collapsed, leaving some 150 staff members, including Hedi Annabi the Secretary General's Special Representative, unaccounted for.
The earthquake is a "tragedy for the Haitian people and also for the UN," said Alain Le Roy, the world body's top peacekeeping official.
It is expected, he said, that the earthquake would claim the largest number of lives ever in a UN mission, even topping the 2003 terrorist bombing of the world body's headquarters in Iraq, in which 22 people, including the top UN envoy, Sergio Vieira de Mello, were killed.
MINUSTAH was set up in 2004 and currently has more than 9 000 military and police personnel and nearly 2 000 civilian staff.
Some 3 000 of the mission's troops and police are in and around Port-au-Prince, and are helping to maintain order and assist in relief efforts. They have also started to clear some of the capital's main roads to allow aid and rescuers to reach those in need.
"The first priority is search and rescue," with teams from the US, China, France, the Dominican Republic and other nations on their way to Haiti, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes said on Wednesday.
Ban has ordered $10 million to be released from the Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF) to kick-start humanitarian relief efforts. A flash appeal for Haiti is expected to be launched within the next few days.
Meanwhile, a 12-member team of health and logistics experts has been deployed by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to support the government in Haiti.
Communications Officer for WHO, Paul Garwood, said among the experts are specialists in mass casualty management, co-ordination of emergency health response and the management of dead bodies.
Garwood said WHO was working with local authorities, UN agencies and humanitarian partners to respond to the emergency.
The organisation is also collecting data on the health impact of the earthquake to disseminate to other humanitarian aid providers.
"Immediate health priorities include search and rescue of survivors trapped underneath rubble, treatment of people with major trauma injuries, preventing the infection of wounds, provision of clean water and sanitation and ensuring breast-feeding is continued," Garwood said.