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Haitian leaders unclear on toll

TITANYEN, Haiti — Haiti issued wildly conflicting death tolls for the Jan. 12 earthquake on Wednesday, adding to confusion about how many people actually died — and to suspicion that nobody really knows.

A day after Communications Minister Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassegue raised the official death toll to 230,000, her office put out a statement quoting President Rene Preval as saying 270,000 bodies had been hastily buried by the government after the earthquake.

A press officer withdrew the statement, saying there was an error, but reissued it within minutes. Later Wednesday, the ministry said that due to a typo, the number should have read 170,000.

Even that didn't clear things up. In the late afternoon, Preval and Lassegue appeared together at the government's temporary headquarters.

Preval, speaking in English, told journalists that the number was 170,000, apparently referring to the number of bodies contained in mass graves.

Lassegue interrupted him in French, giving a number lower than she had given the previous day: "No, no, the official number is 210,000."

Preval dismissed her.

"Oh, she doesn't know what she's talking about," he said, again in English.

No foreign government or independent agency has issued its own death toll. Many agencies that usually can help estimate casualty numbers say they are too busy helping the living to keep track of the dead. And the Joint Task Force in charge of the relief effort — foreign governments and militaries, U.N. agencies and Haitian government officials — quotes only the government death toll.

That toll has climbed from a precise 111,481 on Jan. 23 to 150,000 on Jan. 24, to 212,000 on Saturday, to 230,000 on Tuesday. Preval's count of 170,000 bodies buried in mass graves may represent only a piece of the toll.

A death toll of 230,000 would equal the number of people killed in the tsunami that devastated a dozen countries around the Indian Ocean after a magnitude 9.2 earthquake on Dec. 26, 2004.

Even some officials express skepticism that the government is keeping count.

"I personally think that a lot of information being given to the public by the government is estimates," said Haiti's chief epidemiologist, Dr. Roc Magloire.

Haitian leaders unclear on toll 02/10/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 10, 2010 10:24pm]
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