By JEFF ZELENY and BRIAN KNOWLTON, New York Times
WASHINGTON — Even as the United States military withdraws the forces it sent to Haiti after its devastating earthquake in January, President Obama on Wednesday promised a lasting commitment to aid and assistance.
“The situation on the ground remains dire,” Mr. Obama said after meeting with President René Préval of Haiti at the White House. “And people should be under no illusions that the crisis is over.”
Pentagon officials said Wednesday that about 10,000 American military personnel were still in Haiti, down from a peak of 22,000. About 4,700 are based on land and 5,300 at sea.
Navy officials said earlier that the hospital ship Comfort would leave the area on Wednesday for its home port, Baltimore. The medical crew of the huge hospital ship treated 871 patients, including 540 of the critically injured who were brought on board in the first 10 days the ship was off the Haitian coast.
The two leaders stood side by side in the Rose Garden on Wednesday afternoon after a private meeting in the Oval Office, where Mr. Obama received an update on conditions in Haiti and promised not to abandon its people. He said the United States “has been proud to play a leading role” in the international response to the earthquake and would continue its partnership on the long road to reconstruction.
“As you declared during last month’s national day of mourning, it is time to wipe away the tears — it is time for Haiti to rebuild,” Mr. Obama said, looking at Mr. Préval. “And to you and to the Haitian people, I say today, as you embark on the heavy work ahead, you will continue to have a steady and reliable partner in the United States of America.”
The two leaders praised the work of the American search and rescue teams that went to Haiti in the days immediately after the earthquake. Members of several of the teams were in Washington on Wednesday for the occasion.
Mr. Préval thanked Americans for coming to Haiti’s aid with financial and military assistance and humanitarian relief after the earthquake, which killed more than 230,000 people and left more than one million homeless. He said the disaster should serve as a warning for the world.
“Dear friends, we must draw the lessons from what occurred in Haiti,” Mr. Préval said. “These are lessons for all of mankind. The Haiti earthquake was immediately followed by the earthquake in Chile, as well as other earthquakes throughout the world.”
Mr. Obama paid tribute to the many nongovernmental organizations helping in Haiti and also to the uniformed American forces who were sent there immediately after the disaster. The hospital ship was among the most visible symbols of that aid, although it could deal with only the most urgent and complex cases among the countless thousands of Haitians needing medical care.
While docked in Haiti, the 894-foot ship provided the most sophisticated medical care available there, but it has not had any patients for more than a week, the Navy said.
“The situation on the ground in terms of the medical situation has improved,” said Jose Ruiz, a civilian spokesman for the United States Southern Command. “Demand for medical care is not exceeding the capacity of facilities on the ground.”
Mr. Ruiz said that the duties of the remaining American forces included helping to distribute aid, remove rubble and complete engineering assessments of damaged structures. With the Haitian government and the police, as well as United Nations peacekeepers, reasserting control in the streets, the American forces were largely in a supporting role, he said.
Gen. Douglas M. Fraser, the commander of the Southern Command, said this week that “our mission is largely accomplished.”
But some Haitians have expressed concern that the troop departures could signal a decline in international interest in Haiti and possibly point toward a resurgence of security concerns.
Meanwhile, a large team has been working in Haiti to develop a long-range reconstruction and development plan for the country in time for a donors’ conference, which is scheduled for March 31 at the United Nations in New York.
Thom Shanker contributed reporting.
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