PORT-AU-PRINCE - The U.S. and Haitian governments are holding talks on the fate of 10 American missionaries accused of illegally trying to take children out of the quake-hit Caribbean country, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Wednesday.
Haitian authorities said they would decide on Thursday whether to pursue a case against the missionaries, who were arrested on Friday trying to cross into the Dominican Republic from Haiti with a busload of 33 children they said were orphaned by the Jan. 12 quake.
Haiti's prime minister, Jean-Max Bellerive, said on Wednesday the death toll from the quake exceeded 200,000 people, raising previous estimates of 150,000 to 200,000 dead.
In Washington, Clinton said for the first time the two governments were discussing the missionaries' case, which is diplomatically sensitive because the United States is heading a massive relief operation after the earthquake wrecked the capital, Port-au-Prince, and killed up to 200,000 people.
We are engaged in discussions with the Haitian government about the appropriate disposition of their cases, she said.
The State Department, which has been at pains to avoid any impression it might be interfering in the matter, said on Tuesday it had not been involved in any broad discussions about the missionaries' case or any possible prosecution.
The accused missionaries vehemently deny they were engaged in child trafficking. They said they were just trying to help some of the thousands of orphans left destitute and abandoned by the quake.
It was unfortunate, whatever the motivation, that this group of Americans took matters into their own hands, Clinton said.
'VICTIMS OF SCAM'
Haitian officials said the detained Americans, most of whom belong to an Idaho-based Baptist church, had no documents proving the children were orphans and no official permission to take them out of the country, which meant the group faced possible kidnapping charges.
But a Haitian lawyer hired to represent the missionaries said on Wednesday the Americans were the victims of a scam.
Attorney Edwin Coq said the scheme was orchestrated by a local pastor who claimed his orphanage had been destroyed in the quake and he had no means to continue feeding or housing the 33 children.
The Americans are missionaries, they were naive. They had no idea they were violating the law. They were acting in good faith and they just wanted to help, Coq told reporters.
Five of the missionaries were questioned by a judge on Tuesday and the remaining five gave testimony on Wednesday, the prosecutor in the case, Mazarre Fortil, told Reuters.
Tomorrow, my decision will be known. Tomorrow, everybody will know what we decide, Fortil said.
Bellerive said the case was stealing attention from the plight of Haitians.
I believe it's a distraction for the Haitian people because they are talking more now about 10 people than they are about 1 million people suffering in the streets, he said.
Speculation about the case has increased after evidence emerged that most of the children intercepted with the missionaries were not orphans. Haitian police say some parents admitted to handing over their children to the American Baptists in the belief they would get an education and a better life.
Haiti's government has tightened adoption procedures since the quake, saying it feared unscrupulous traffickers could try to take advantage of the disaster by spiriting away vulnerable children. Officials said they have already had reports of trafficking of minors, and even of human organs.
The U.S. public, which has donated tens of millions of dollars to the Haiti relief effort, is following the case of the detained Americans closely.
Ordinary Haitians expressed mixed views about the controversy, which highlights the extreme poverty of the most underdeveloped state in the Western Hemisphere, where the practice of handing over children to wealthier relatives and acquaintances for care is still common, as in Africa.
I think it is an act of love when someone adopts a child, particularly an orphan that otherwise would not have a good education and a chance to succeed in life, said 35-year-old Magina Labossiere.
Magalie Sanon said Haiti's crippled state could not offer a bright future to many Haitian children. Their biological parents cannot offer them that future, so if someone of good will and intention wants to do that, why not? she said.
More than three weeks after the devastating quake, which also injured several hundred thousand and left more than a million homeless in Port-au-Prince and other areas, aid groups are still struggling to feed and shelter the survivors.
The United Nations on Wednesday assigned former U.S. President Bill Clinton, now U.N. special envoy to Haiti, to coordinate international relief efforts in the earthquake-devastated country.
(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Tom Brown and Mica Rosenberg in Port-au-Prince, Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations; Writing by Jim Loney and Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Peter Cooney)