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After near riots, US Embassy in Haiti asks Haitians to stay away

The US Embassy in the Haiti capital of Port-au-Prince has been overwhelmed by Haitians seeking help or a way out of their troubled country. The US ambassador says he understands the humanitarian need, but stresses the embassy is focusing on US citizens and their relatives.

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A crowd gathers outside the US Embassy hoping for a chance at attaining travel visas to enter the United States in Port-au- Prince, Haiti, Jan. 22.

Julie Jacobson/AP

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After some near-riot moments outside the United States Embassy here earlier this week, officials decided it was time to act.

With thousands of desperate Haitians looking for a way out of a country devastated by the Jan. 12 earthquake, the US embassy on the city’s northern edge – like the French and Canadian embassies, though to lesser degrees – became a prime destination for would-be refugees.

The US ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Merton, got on Haitian radio – the medium of choice for most Haitians seeking information after the quake – to spread the word: The US is providing unprecedented amounts of assistance to Haiti, he said, but the embassy is only serving the legitimate needs of American citizens.

Information was placed in newspapers. Loudspeakers were used to spread the word through the crowds of thousands lining up outside the embassy that Haitians’ needs would not be attended to at the embassy. The result is that while the crowds continue to show up every day they are considerably smaller – and more manageable – than a few days ago.

“Above everything else we wanted to make sure no one got hurt,” says Gordon Duguid, the US State Department's deputy spokesman, who traveled to Port-au-Prince with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton the Saturday after the quake and stayed on. “But as always in a situation like this, our first job is to serve American citizens.”

That means that a non-American relative of an American citizen's child may be granted a visa to accompany the child to the US, but Haitians in dire straits after the quake – even those with family in the US – won’t.

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