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Neal Walker, Sky News Online
The dead and injured lay in the streets of Port-au-Prince after the earthquake hit the impoverished Caribbean country, toppling buildings including the presidential palace.
The Red Cross and United Nations have unlocked emergency funds and mobilised supplies for a "massive" aid operation amid fears of huge devastation.
The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said it was gearing up to help a "maximum of three million people".
The headquarters of the UN's Haiti peacekeeping missionwere seriously damaged, and the organisation says at least five people died in the building when the quake hit.
Missing UN chief Hedi Annabi
The French foreign minister says the head of the UN mission, Tunisian Hedi Annabi, appears to have died in the earthquake.
Bernard Kouchner told French radio that "everyone who was in the building is apparently dead".
The quake, measuring 7.2 on the Richter scale, is said to be the most powerful to hit Haiti in more than 200 years.
It took just 60 seconds for the quake to destroy large parts of Port-au-Prince, just 10 miles from the epicentre of the tremor.
As darkness fell last night, screams could be heard coming from victims still trapped in the debris of buildings across Port-au-Prince.
Residents on the impoverished island used flashlights to try and find the injured and dead.
Thousands of people gathered in public squares late into the night, singing hymns and weeping, with many seriously injured people sitting in the streets pleading for doctors.
Karel Zelenka, a Catholic Relief Services representative in Port-au-Prince, said "there must be thousands of people dead".
At least one of the capital's hospitals collapsed in the quake, burying many patients.
Medicins Sans Frontieres' trauma hospital, a 60-bed centre and one of the only free-of-charge surgical facilities in Port-au-Prince, was seriously damaged by the quake.
Shock: Minutes after the aftermath victims post pictures on Twitter
The organisation says it is "deeply concerned" for the safety of its staff and patients, and will be deploying additional staff to the country in the coming days.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said the earthquake had a "devastating" impact on Port-au-Prince, and said he plans to visit the area as soon as possible.
US President Barack Obama said his "thoughts and prayers" were with the people of Haiti and pledged immediate aid.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the US would provide both military and civilian disaster assistance to the Caribbean country.
Gordon Brown said he was "deeply saddened and worried" about the reported scale of the earthquake. Britain has sent a team from the Department for International Development (DFID) to assess Haiti's humanitarian needs, as well as teams of search and rescue officers and sniffer dogs.
The Prime Minister added: "We stand ready to provide whatever humanitarian assistance may be required."
Development Secretary Douglas Alexander told the House of Commons that Britain is ready to play its part "as part of the international community to aid the relief effort in Haiti".
As the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti is ill-equipped to respond to such a disaster.
Aid agencies are preparing a major disaster relief effort in Haiti.
International Red Cross spokesman Simon Schorno says the agency is sending a relief team to help hospitals deal with casualties.
Schorno said Haitian Red Cross staff are "completely overwhelmed", and that there is little or no coordinated aid effort at this point.
An injured man in the street
The US Fund for Unicef launched an urgent appealfor emergencyassistance to aid the victims.
Oxfam said in a statement posted on its website that it was "poised to respond" to the earthquake.
Kristie van de Wetering, a former Oxfam employee still based in Port-au-Prince, said in a statement on the Oxfam website: "There is a blanket of dust rising from the valley south of the capital.
"We can hear people calling for help from every corner. The aftershocks are ongoing and making people very nervous."
Pope Benedict XVI called for a generous response to the "tragic situation" in Haiti.
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