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President Sarkozy visits Port-au-Prince, 'stands by Haitians'

French President Nicolas Sarkozy is briefly visiting Port-au-Prince Wednesday, where he is expected to confirm the cancellation of Haiti’s debt to France and offer the quake-stricken country an “extremely significant” aid package.

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AFP - Nicolas Sarkozy vowed Wednesday to help Haiti turn the page after last month's disastrous earthquake as he became the first French president to visit France's former slave colony in the Caribbean.

"I have come to tell the Haitian people and their leaders that France, which was the first on the ground after the catastrophe, will remain firmly at the their side to help them pick themselves up again and open a new happy page in their history," Sarkozy said in Port-au-Prince.

"France will live up to the responsibilities of its shared history and friendship with Haiti," said Sarkozy, who was greeted by Haitian President Rene Preval at the start of his landmark trip.

The visit is the first by a French president to this former French colony in the Caribbean, which fought for and won its independence in 1804, becoming the first independent black republic.

The massive January 12 quake claimed some 217,000 lives and left some 1.2 million people homeless on the Caribbean island of a little over nine million people.
  

Sarkozy was accompanied by his minister of foreign affairs Bernard Kouchner, the minister for overseas territories Marie-Luce Penchard, and secretary of state for cooperation Alain Joyandet.

He was to announce a significant aid package during his brief visit to the Caribbean island, as well as cancellation of Haiti's 56-million-euro (76-million-dollar) debt to France.

But he told his Haitian guests that it was first and foremost "up to the Haitians" to take their redevelopment and rebuilding into their own hands, saying the effort should be "a true national project."

Sarkozy was scheduled to survey the devastated Haitian capital and other affected areas by helicopter, and also was to visit a field hospital set up by French aid workers.

The French aid package will focus on restoring state services through training of civil servants and advancing reconstruction as part of a UN-led plan to be adopted at a New York conference on March 31, officials said.

In Port-au-Prince, the president will meet French rescue teams, expatriates, representatives of non-governmental organizations and UN mission officials at the French embassy.

The Haiti visit, which was to last some four-and-a-half hours and wraps up at around 11:30 am (1630 GMT) is part of a regional tour that also will take Sarkozy to the French overseas departments of Martinique and French Guiana.

Preval said that "under other circumstances, a visit by a president of the French Republic would have been a pleasure" but the tragic quake and its aftermath make this "a time of national mourning. We are grieving for our dead."

According to the Inter-American Development Bank, the quake caused damages estimated at between eight and 14 billion dollars in what was already the poorest country in the Americas before the catastrophe.

It has become the worst natural disaster in modern history, the IDB said, considering Haiti's population and economic weight.

More than a million Haitians are still homeless following the earthquake, living in squalid camps in and around the capital.

While aid workers rush to distribute tarpaulins before the rainy season starts, the United Nations says only about 272,000 people have been provided with shelter materials so far.
 

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