, PORT-AU-PRINCE, Feb 2 – Ten US Christians held in Haiti faced possible child-trafficking charges Tuesday over an attempt to smuggle a group of children out of the quake-devastated nation.
In a case that has heightened concerns about the safety of child survivors of the quake, the 10 members of a Christian group – who deny any evil intent – face further questioning and a court appearance, officials said.
The controversy has overshadowed the ongoing massive international relief effort still struggling to feed, house and care for an estimated one million homeless Haitians.
Three weeks after the 7.0-magnitude quake killed 170,000 people, flattening the capital Port-au-Prince, many survivors are still gasping for food, water, shelter, security and medical help.
UN officials said nearly half a million people had fled Port-au-Prince for the countryside since the quake, doubling a previous estimate of 235,000.
The UN\’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said 90 percent were staying with relatives, but the prices of basic commodities such as rice and sugar were rising and medical centers were short of supplies and equipment.
In Port-au-Prince, interim prosecutor Mazar Fortil said the Christians may face a charge of criminal conspiracy in Haiti as well as possible charges of kidnapping minors and child-trafficking.
The five men and five women with US passports, and two Haitians, were held late Friday when they tried to cross into the Dominican Republic in a bus with 33 children aged between two months and 14 years.
Culture and Communications Minister Marie Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue said a Haitian judge would decide whether to transfer the case to the United States.
A first appearance for the group scheduled Monday was postponed because a Creole language interpreter was not available.
Laura Silsby, who heads the Idaho-based group New Life Children\’s Refuge, insisted the group "came here literally to just help the children.
"Our intentions were good," she told AFP from police detention. "We wanted to help those who lost parents in the quake or were abandoned."
But as reports emerged that many of the children had parents, humanitarian groups worried it would confirm fears of human trafficking amid the chaos.
"For us it is important to clarify how those kids have been given to those people," Georg Willeit, a spokesman for SOS Children Village now looking after the children, told AFP.
US State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Washington would be guided by Haitian officials.
"Once we know the facts we\’ll determine what the appropriate course is, but the judgement is really up to the Haitian government," he said.
Shortly after the quake, parents around the world waiting to adopt Haitian children pushed governments to speed up the process and Crowley said some 578 orphans had been brought to the United States under relaxed regulations.
On the ground in Haiti, the UN\’s humanitarian chief acknowledged the relief effort was still struggling, while there were also fresh fears of violence in the Caribbean country, which has been scarred by decades of political upheaval and bloodshed.
The United States resumed medical evacuations of critically injured quake victims to US hospitals after a row over funding had halted the flights.
Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey, on a swift weekend visit, and Haitian President Rene Preval discussed blocked assets worth 7.6 million Swiss francs (7.2 million dollars) belonging to ex-dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.
Suisse Romande television reported Calmy-Rey said she wanted the process of returning the cash, which have been held in Swiss accounts since his ouster in 1986, to be speeded up.
Meanwhile stars including Barbra Streisand, Celine Dion, Wyclef Jean, Pink, Kanye West and Brian Wilson lent their voices to a charity remake of "We Are The World" in aid of quake victims.
"It kind of hit me that I guess this is something way more important than I could have ever imagined," rapper Lil Wayne said.
In Britain, a charity single for Haiti had its first airplay, featuring the likes of Rod Stewart, Robbie Williams and Kylie Minogue singing a new version of REM\’s "Everybody Hurts."