PARIS, France - French President Nicolas Sarkozy on Tuesday praised the "essential role" the U.S. is playing in helping Haiti recover - scrambling to overcome comments by one of his ministers who compared Washington's aid efforts to a new occupation of the impoverished nation.
A U.N. spokeswoman in Geneva echoed Sarkozy, insisting that aid co-ordination is improving in Haiti and dismissing criticism over how the U.S. controls the clogged airport in the capital of Port-au-Prince.
"In the sphere of logistics, we really have to thank them," spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said of the U.S. military. "Without them, the airport wouldn't work."
In a particularly flattering statement, Sarkozy said his country was "fully satisfied" by the co-operation between the United States and France, which decided last week to join forces to respond to the devastation of the Jan. 12 earthquake. Sarkozy also acknowledged the "exceptional mobilization of the United States on Haiti's behalf and the essential role it was playing on the ground."
Sarkozy was responding to complaints by French Cooperation Minister Alain Joyandet that the United States was giving priority to its own military and relief flights ahead of other nations' aid flights. Joyandet, a member of Sarkozy's ruling UMP party, went as far as demanding a U.N. investigation into U.S. aid efforts.
"This is about helping Haiti, not about occupying Haiti," Joyandet said Monday.
A day later, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner tried to smooth over Joyandet's abrasive tone.
"This is not the time to speak about a few misunderstandings, which when compared to the effort, the achievement and the results, are of no interest," Kouchner told reporters Tuesday with an unsmiling Joyandet at his side.
Kouchner, a humanitarian relief veteran, said "there are always small squabbles" when there are "big catastrophes." Byrs said the U.N. reached an agreement Monday with the U.S. that aid flights would get the top landing priority at Port-au-Prince.
Joyandet's comments hit a diplomatic nerve, for both France and the United States have occupied Haiti in the past.
France occupied Haiti for more than 100 years, from 1697 to independence in 1804 after the world's first successful slave uprising. U.S. Marines occupied the country from 1915 to 1934 to quiet political turmoil.
France still has a large presence in the Caribbean, including the two official French overseas departments of Guadeloupe and Martinique, and is keen to be seen as a leader in the Haiti earthquake relief effort.
Kouchner said an aid conference of 16 countries that comprise the so-called "Friends of Haiti" would meet Jan. 25 in Montreal and should lead to a much larger meeting devoted to Haiti's reconstruction.
"We must give Haitians the assurance that we will not abandon them" once the humanitarian emergency has passed, Koucher said.
Byrs explained that the U.N. was in charge of co-ordinating humanitarian aid at Haiti's main airport but logistics were being controlled by the Americans. The two work together on getting food and medicine to Haitians in need but American missions don't require U.N. permission, she said.
"I don't think it's a matter of authorization," Byrs said. "If there is an urgent task to do, I think it has to be done in close co-operation with all the acting partners."
Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper contributed from Geneva.