Cook inspects devastation of Montserrat

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The Independent Online
ROBIN COOK will become the first Foreign Secretary to set foot on a "British dependent territory" in the Caribbean today when he visits the volcano-stricken Montserrat. Mr Cook said in Antigua yesterday that he wants to see for himself the effects of two years of devastation on the island and to reassure the 3,000 remaining islanders that Britain is not trying to force them out.

Most islanders said yesterday that they would receive Mr Cook politely but were still highly suspicious of Britain's longer-term motives. They noted that the British government was conditioning its promise of supporting the islanders on reports by British scientists of the activity of the Soufriere Hills volcano.

"At any moment, they could tell us `the volcano's getting dangerous, we've got to get you all out'," said George, a Montserrat taxi driver. "What kind of security does that offer us?" The remaining islanders, just over one-quarter of the 11,000 inhabitants before the first eruption of 1995, are squeezed into a small northern area, with two-thirds of the island, including the capital, Plymouth, abandoned.

"I certainly hope Mrs Short's not coming with him," several islanders said yesterday, referring to Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development.

Ms Short disgusted the islanders, most of whom had lost their homes and possessions and were living with relatives or in shelters, late last year when she criticised their calls for British aid. "They'll be asking for golden elephants next," she said at the time, when all most wanted was a single-room house and the reopening of schools.

Despite anti-British protests last year, islanders said Mr Cook would be well treated, particularly for visiting them during the latest Gulf crisis.

After listening to the problems of Montserratian refugees on the neighbouring island of Antigua this morning, he is to fly to Montserrat by helicopter. The island's airstrip was closed last year, before a pyroclastic flow thundered down on it, destroying the terminal building and covering the airport with ash.

During a helicopter tour of the devastated areas, including Plymouth, Mr Cook hopes to touch down briefly at the airstrip to see the damage, unless he is warned that the volcano could erupt again. Scientists say the volcano's dome has been rebuilding again at the rate of eight cubic metres per second since its most recent major eruption last December. As a result, the British governor, Tony Abbott, and local government have stopped special trips into the evacuated zone by insurance assessors and residents with passes to retrieve possessions.

Before flying to Antigua yesterday, Mr Cook chaired the second day of a "Caribbean Forum" in Nassau, the Bahamas, during which he was expected to pledged a higher priority to Britain's "dependent territories," now to be called "overseas territories". At the forum, Britain was to donate a brand new, pounds 500,000 40ft fast boat for training the coastguards of Caribbean nations in anti-narcotics sweeps.

Also at the forum, the Commonwealth Development Corporation, along with several private banks, were to announce new "micro-credits" to help small businesses start up as alternatives to the traditional industries, notably bananas. Many Caribbean residents see narcotics and bananas as increasingly inter-linked. United States measures which affect Caribbean banana production are opening the door to drug production or trafficking, the residents insist.