Cook sees Montserrat's agony for himself

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Defying volcanic ash clouds that forced his staff to don surgical- style nose masks, the Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, toured the Caribbean island of Montserrat on Saturday to see the plight of its residents.

As he peered from the door of a hleicopter hovering close to the crater of the Soufriere Hills volcano, he witnessed a series of small eruptions, including a pyroclastic flow of dark gray gas and a number of rockfalls on to uninhabited areas. So bad was the ash cloud that his helicopter pilot called off a planned sight-seeing touch-down at the island's international airport, destroyed by an eruption last year and still blanketed in ash.

Declining to wear a nose mask, the Foreign Secretary was clearly shocked and moved when the helicopter swung round the crater into sight of the devastated and evacuated capital, Plymouth, now resembling a lunar landscape. "It was dramatic and particularly distressing to see for myself the devastation caused to the south of the island," he said later. "It was horrifying in terms of its impact and devastation."

Unusual winds during his stay gave Mr Cook experience of the conditions the remaining islanders are living in. Ash clouds drifted over the northern "safe zone," showering him with volcanic ash. Ash in the air is proving a more immediate health threat to Montserratians than the danger of being hit by a flow of gas and rock.

The locals were clearly more interested in the England-West Indies Test and ignored the visitor during his five-hour stay. Most refugees did not even leave their tents or shacks at the Gerald's Bottom camp as his helicopter arrived from Antigua. Many said later that dust thrown up by helicopter landings, yards from their makeshift homes, adds to their hardship and is an insult to their dignity. In what he said was an effort to give "a very clear commitment by Britain to providing a viable economic and social future" for Montserratians, Mr Cook toured refugee shelters, a housing project, the one remaining secondary school and its only hospital.

At Salem refugee shelter, on the edge of the northern zone still considered safe by scientists, the Foreign Secretary invited himself into a one-room shack. Claristine Allen, a grandmother forced to flee her home in the village of Cork Hill, showed him her two "bedrooms" - two double beds with sheets hung up as partitions.

Hearing the Test commentary from behind one of the sheets, Mr Cook asked the score. "135 for seven," came the reply. Mrs Allen pulled aside the sheet to show her husband Tom, flat on his back on the bed watching a tiny TV, with his three-year-old grandson Delston asleep beside him. Mr Allen did not budge, stuck out his hand to the Foreign Secretary, said "nice to meet you" and turned back to the match.

That was relatively polite compared with a letter given Mr Cook by a group of Montserratians who accused Britain of "criminal negligence" by not giving islanders details of any evacuation drill. He appeared to admit there was a plan for getting all 3,200 remaining residents off - the population was 11,000 before the first eruption in 1995 - but only if the volcano posed a clear threat to the still-inhabited area. Many residents suspect Britain is trying to squeeze them off the island. "Britain has no wish, no intention, no secret plan to abandon the island," Mr Cook said. The respected local newspaper editor Bennette Roach responded : "There is no secret plan, it is quite open." He accused Whitehall of dragging its feet on housing and investment in the hope that more people would leave.