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A boy sucks his thumb as Master Corporal Lola Lagler, of the Canadian Forces, searches his bag before boarding a transport plane in Port-au-Prince, Monday, Jan. 18, 2010. (Lynne Sladky/Lynne Sladky/AP)
A boy sucks his thumb as Master Corporal Lola Lagler, of the Canadian Forces, searches his bag before boarding a transport plane in Port-au-Prince, Monday, Jan. 18, 2010. (Lynne Sladky/Lynne Sladky/AP)

Canada to take charge at quake's core Add to ...

Nearly 2,000 troops will mount Canada's largest-ever relief mission in an isolated triangle south and west of Haiti's capital, clearing roads and providing relief to the hard-hit area around the epicentre of the earthquake.

Cut off from the rest of the country by roads clogged with rubble, the Canadian relief zone is a ravaged district of towns and countryside that stretches from the outskirts of Port-au-Prince to Jacmel, a town of 40,000 on Haiti's south coast.

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Jacmel has a symbolic tie to Canada: It is the birthplace of generations of Governor-General Michaëlle Jean's family, a place she saw often as a child, and where she had an emotional homecoming as the Queen's representative to Canada in 2006.

Now, Jacmel sits at the southern tip of a devastated region 35 kilometres from Port-au-Prince. With the roads all but impassable, the delivery of aid is days behind that in the capital. Canadian troops, the vanguard of which landed in the port city yesterday, will set up hospitals and clear the road north toward Léogane, a town west of Port-au-Prince where the quake hit hardest.

"The epicentre of the earthquake is right there," said General Walter Natynczyk, Chief of the Defence Staff. "We understand there's been 90-per-cent destruction."

The Haiti relief mission constitutes one of Canada's largest foreign commitments of recent decades, surpassing many of the country's big peacekeeping operations. There are 2,000 Canadian troops in Haiti or preparing to go, compared to nearly 3,000 in Afghanistan.

The magnitude 7.0 quake has caused incomparable devastation. A European Union official estimated that 200,000 people may have been killed, quoting Haitian officials who said about 70,000 bodies have been recovered so far. Another 250,000 are believed injured.

In the first estimate of the financial costs, the President of the neighbouring Dominican Republic, Leonel Fernandez, told a donors conference Monday that it will cost $10-billion over five years to address the immediate disaster and rebuild the shattered country.

Despite the arrival of 2,200 U.S. Marines aboard the amphibious assault ship USS Bataan, the massive international effort is still failing to bring security or deliver significant amounts of aid to the people.

U.S. military officers controlling Port-au-Prince's airport have been effectively in charge of co-ordinating relief efforts. But Canadian officials said they have been asked by the United Nations and Haiti's barely functioning government to take control of the area between Jacmel and the capital.

"The hospital was half-destroyed, and even prior to the earthquake the hospital was in a deplorable situation. You can just imagine what it is like now," Canada's ambassador to Haiti, Gilles Rivard, told reporters in Port-au-Prince. "The road is cut. Jacmel is cut from the world."

The Canadian Forces' Disaster Assistance Response Team, or DART, moved into Jacmel Monday to establish an emergency hospital and provide clean water.

Two Canadian navy ships carrying 500 soldiers and sailors and relief supplies will arrive Tuesday. The military personnel will bulldoze rubble from blocked roads, allowing aid to reach Jacmel from the airport in Port-au-Prince.

The frigate HMCS Halifax will take up a position off Jacmel, using small boats to ferry engineers and equipment ashore to clear the road to Leogane. At the same time, the destroyer HMCS Athabaskan will arrive off the coast west of Port-au-Prince, deploying its personnel to clear a road from Léogane to the Port-au-Prince airport.

The object of the Canadian operation is to ease the flow of aid from the airport into Port-au-Prince and the countryside.

A contingent of 1,000 troops preparing in Valcartier to deploy to Haiti will mostly move into the Canadian aid zone, although some will take up security and other duties around the airport and at the Canadian embassy in Port-au-Prince, officials said.

"Here we have an engineering regiment coming out of Valcartier and those are all the people operating heavy equipment to open up the roads, repair bridges and move some of this rubble so that we can actually get to some of these locations," Gen. Natynczyk told a press conference at the military base near Quebec City Monday.

On a mission to survey Jacmel Monday, the commander of the DART team, Colonel Bruce Ewing, said the town emerged as the obvious place to deploy during a meeting with Haiti's President and Prime Minister, who talked about the need in Jacmel for clean water - a DART specialty.

Col. Ewing said he expects to have 110 soldiers in Jacmel when HMCS Halifax arrives Tuesday. Soon there will be a camp for the team to live in, and eventually a medical clinic capable of treating 250 people a day, he said.

"I've got a couple of small water purification units coming … and that would give us some potable water. But I'm also using a couple of ROWPUs, which are large machines that purify water which would give us a lot of water for the local community."

Dan Dugas, a spokesman for Defence Minister Peter MacKay, said Ms. Jean had no role in choosing the town where Canada will focus its efforts. But on her 2006 return to Haiti, the Governor-General left little doubt of what Jacmel means to her.

"Here stands my childhood," she said then.

With reports from The Canadian Press and Gloria Galloway in Ottawa

Follow on Twitter: @camrclark

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