A 7.0 magnitude quake – the biggest recorded in this part of the Caribbean and the largest to hit Haiti in more than 200 years – rocked Port-au-Prince last night, destroying a hospital and sending houses tumbling into ravines.
"There must be thousands of people dead," Sara Fajardo, a spokeswoman for Catholic Relief Services, told the Los Angeles Times. International aid groups are planning a major disaster relief effort. The international Red Cross said up to 3 million people could be affected.
The headquarters of the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti has collapsed and a large number of UN personnel are missing, according to Alain Le Roy, the head of UN peacekeeping. At least 11 peacekeepers were reportedly killed – eight from China and three from Jordan.
Le Roy told reporters that UN troops, mostly from Brazil, were trying to rescue people from the wreckage of the five-storey building but "as we speak no one has been rescued from this main headquarters".
Gareth Owen, emergencies director at Save the Children, which has about 60 staff in Haiti, said: "We are very concerned about the high likelihood of a significant loss of life because Port-au-Prince is a very densely populated city and the earthquake epicentre was very close to it."
No official estimate of the death toll has been possible but it is clear tens of thousands of people have had their homes destroyed in Port-au-Prince, which has a population of about 1 million, and that many people have perished.
The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said initial reports suggested "a high number of casualties and widespread damage, with an urgent need for search and rescue".