President and minister argue over Haiti death toll

Haiti issued wildly conflicting death tolls for the January 12 earthquake, adding to confusion about how many people actually died – and to suspicion that nobody really knows.

A day after Communications Minister Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue raised the official death toll to 230,000, her office put out a statement quoting President Rene Preval as saying 270,000 bodies had been hastily buried by the government following the earthquake.

A press officer withdrew the statement, saying there was an error, but re-issued it within minutes.

Later, the ministry said that due to a typo, the number should have read 170,000.

Even that didn’t clear things up. In the late afternoon, Mr Preval and Ms Lassegue appeared together at the government’s temporary headquarters.

Mr Preval, speaking English, told journalists that the number was 170,000, apparently referring to the number of bodies contained in mass graves.

Ms Lassegue interrupted him in French, giving a number lower than she had given the previous day:

“No, no, the official number is 210,000.”

Mr Preval dismissed her.

“Oh, she doesn’t know what she’s talking about,” he said, again in English.

Whatever the death toll, there is no doubt it is one of the highest in a modern disaster.

A third of Haiti’s nine million people were crowded into the chaotic capital Port-au-Prince when the quake struck just to the southwest a few minutes before 5pm.

Many were preparing to leave their offices or schools. Some 250,000 houses and 30,000 commercial buildings collapsed, according to government estimates, many crushing people inside.

For days, people piled bodies by the side of the road or left them half-buried under the rubble. Countless more remain under collapsed buildings, identified only by a pungent smell.

No foreign government or independent agency has issued its own death toll.

Many agencies that usually can help estimate casualty numbers say they are too busy helping the living to keep track of the dead.

And the Joint Task Force in charge of the relief effort – foreign governments and militaries, UN agencies and Haitian government officials – quotes only the government death toll.

That toll has climbed from a precise 111,481 on January 23 to 150,000 on January 24, to 212,000 on Saturday, to 230,000 on Tuesday. Mr Preval’s count of 170,000 bodies buried in mass graves may represent only a piece of the toll - but nobody at his office was available to clarify.

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