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A Canadian Forces Hercules transport plane attempts a take-off on the 1,000-metre runway at the airport in Jacmel, Haiti on Jan. 18, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)
A Canadian Forces Hercules transport plane attempts a take-off on the 1,000-metre runway at the airport in Jacmel, Haiti on Jan. 18, 2010. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Canada's big task in Haiti starts on small airstrip Add to ...

The runway is short and there is no control tower. But the tiny landing strip at Jacmel on Haiti's south coast has become a lifeline to a region that was all but levelled by last week's earthquake.

A Canadian C-130 Hercules set down at Jacmel's airport Tuesday, the first plane from any country to reach people cut off from the aid that is arriving, albeit slowly, in the capital of Port-au-Prince.

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At about the same time, the frigate HMCS Halifax pulled near to Jacmel's shallow port and began sending troops to the garbage-strewn shores on inflatable boats.

"We have now roughly 250 or 300 folk who are down in Jacmel," Lieutenant-General Andrew Leslie, the chief of land staff for the Canadian military, said in an interview Tuesday morning.

By Tuesday night, 1,000 of Canada's troops, sailors and air personnel had arrived in the tiny, devastated nation. Hundreds more will join in the next 36 hours.

A transport ship is due to dock in Quebec City on Thursday to load vehicles. It will be several more days before it arrives in Haitian waters. Even when the vehicles arrive, the army has to get them ashore, a process that could take much longer.

Many soldiers will end up in the heavily damaged and isolated region of Jacmel and nearby Léogâne, at the epicentre of the earthquake, where Canada will focus its relief effort.

Logistics have been a problem, Gen. Leslie conceded. The airport at Port-au-Prince had become "a choke point" for the international response.

So the Jacmel runway, despite the challenge it presents even to experienced pilots, is a critical portal for getting supplies and people in and out. "We have actually managed to open an airport and we have proved it with the very brave flight crew that took this big monstrous machine and put it on the runway," Gen. Leslie said.

But the Hercules crew were not the first members of Canada's air force to make the risky landing in Jacmel. That job went to the Griffon helicopter pilots who began flying reconnaissance missions to southern Haiti five days ago.

Captain Mitchell Nurse said his first thoughts upon seeing the airport from the cockpit of his Griffon was how desolate it is.

"The ramp is pretty small. It gets pretty full with about four or five small aircraft. There is no air-traffic control. It's quite the wild one," Capt. Nurse said by telephone from Port-au-Prince.

The 27-year-old pilot has made more than a dozen trips between Jacmel and the Haitian capital, flying in with supplies for Canada's Disaster Assistance Response Team, and out with survivors.

His passengers Tuesday included two babies and three adults who needed medical attention. Earlier in the week, he airlifted two Canadian missionaries to safety. "When we landed at our camp back here they started to cry," Capt. Nurse said.

It is his first overseas deployment. But many of the Canadian military personnel who are in Haiti have only recently returned from Afghanistan. And many have done tours in Haiti. Some speak Creole.

The duration of the mission, which will soon be two-thirds the size of the mission in Afghanistan, is unknown. Defence Minister Peter MacKay said he expects it will last a maximum of two to three months.

The primary job will be security as well as delivering medical aid and emergency supplies of food and water. For now, it also includes rescuing Canadians. As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, 1,641 Canadians had been located but 665 Canadians were still missing. More than 1,200 people had been evacuated on 13 military flights.

The federal government, meanwhile, continues to make plans for a meeting next week in Montreal of the Friends of Haiti, an informal group of countries that have expressed strong interest in Haitian development.

Details are still being decided but non-governmental aid groups operating in Haiti say they want to take part.

"We are not organizations that have just come to Haiti in the moment of the crisis," Robert Fox, the executive director of Oxfam Canada said during a teleconference Tuesday. "We are organizations that have years of engagement with Haiti and with Haitian civil society … and we will be there in the long term as Haiti reconstructs and rebuilds."

With a report from The Canadian Press

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