Navy sent to aid Honduras

IT WAS the sort of news kids love to hear, but it is a further blow for battered Honduras. The government announced yesterday that all schools and colleges will be closed well into next year as a result of Hurricane Mitch. Hundreds of schools and colleges were destroyed, or are under water or mud after the storm rampaged through this Central American nation last week. Those education centres that survived are now providing shelter for hundreds of thousands of people who lost their homes.

Around the northern town of San Pedro Sula residents worried about epidemics went out in canoes or on rafts made from inner tubes yesterday to haul in decomposing bodies from the newly formed muddy lakes.

The unidentified bodies were wrapped in black plastic rubbish bags and buried in deep graves, five bodies in each.

As the death-toll climbs towards 11,000, with another 13,000 missing across parts of Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, Hurricane Mitch has become the most destructive Atlantic storm in more than 200 years - since the Great Hurricane of 1780, which killed 20,000 people in the eastern Caribbean.

Even as rescue workers found new bodies in the mud, the region faced multiple threats: cholera from a lack of drinking water, malaria and dengue epidemics as mosquitoes multiplied in stagnant ponds, hunger as food ran out, and land mines from former civil wars brought back to the surface by flooding.

The Nicaraguan President, Arnoldo Aleman, made an impassioned plea for medicines. Britain said yesterday it had sent two more Royal Navy ships to help with humanitarian relief operations. HMS Sheffield, which has already carried out rescue work, will remain in the region.

President Bill Clinton has requested a "global relief effort" and issued orders boosting U.S. emergency aid to $70m. The President is dispatching a delegation next week led by Tipper Gore, wife of Vice-President Al Gore, to deliver some of the supplies destined for Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala.

Emma Bonino, Europe's Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid, yesterday said rich nations should consider writing off the debt of Central American nations devastated by Hurricane Mitch. Her intervention was a marked contrast with comments by Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development, who rejected the notion yesterday.

The Commissioner said the question of debt relief is the responsibility of member-states and may be raised at a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels on Monday. Campaign groups have called for immediate cancellation of all debts owed by these countries, warning that otherwise they will not be able to handle the emergency. Asked about the issue yesterday, Ms Short said such arguments were "misleading" and "irrelevant" to the relief effort. The minister agreed there was a serious case for debt relief for some poor countries but added: "in the middle of a disaster it's an irrelevance".

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