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As Haiti slides, concern grows over famine, exodus

A looming humanitarian crisis has the US worried about Haitians fleeing to Florida shores.

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For weeks Haiti's political crisis has posed a latent threat to the 7 million inhabitants of the hemisphere's most impoverished country.

But now the political opposition's rejection of a US-brokered power-sharing plan, and President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's warning of an exodus of boat people for the shores of Florida, have the prospect of a humanitarian crisis looming larger.

So far, rebels advancing southward toward the capital of Port-au-Prince are concentrating their ire on police stations and other government offices. But some food warehouses maintained by international agencies have been ransacked, and supply lines have been disrupted.

As the rebels talk of taking the capital by Sunday, fears of violence and food shortages among the population are growing.

Florida officials, including the state's two Democratic senators, are warning that the Bush administration's refusal so far to consider sending in security forces to restore calm could result in a major exodus. But Haiti experts note that leaving the country by boat takes time to plan - and before people have a chance to leave, the fast-moving crisis could result in deteriorating conditions for the population.

"I have no doubt there are more people wanting to flee the turbulence, and that will only increase if things get worse as they look like they will. But even if 40,000 people wanted to leave, that takes time," says Lawrence Pezzullo, a former foreign service officer who was the Clinton administration's Haiti envoy. "But famine can threaten quickly if you're unable to deliver food," he adds. "That's very difficult to do in the middle of an insurrection."

Haiti's poverty and meager food production resulting from near-total deforestation have left large numbers of people dependent on food aid. But the United Nations World Food Program reports supplies have been pillaged, while the numbers of people seeking assistance is growing quickly.

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