Red Cross aid and British marines reach Honduras

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The Independent Online
ONE OF the first consignments of British aid for the victims of Hurricane Mitch reached Central America yesterday when a British Red Cross plane carrying pounds 150,000 of medicines touched down near the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa.

The medical kits, water containers and purification tablets will support 10,000 people for three months. In Honduras alone 700,000 people are in desperate need of food and medical aid, while 40,000 people in the region are still cut off by the floods, which also wreaked havoc in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador.

Ninety Royal Marines and 30 Royal Navy medics flew by helicopter into flood-isolated villages along the Honduran-Nicaraguan border yesterday to bring badly needed food and water to hurricane victims.

Four Sea King and two Lynx helicopters found enough dry land to touch down at dawn and drop off the British contingent, the first of about 400 marines and medics expected to go ashore over the next few days. They were welcomed by hundreds of local villagers but also by Nicaraguan and other foreign aid workers who had reached the stricken area before them.

The marines, from 45 Commando, were carrying "limited arms, for self- defence" - rather than their usual assault weapons - with the permission of the two host governments, said Commander David Marsh of the helicopter- carrier HMS Ocean, anchored in the Caribbean about 12 miles offshore.

The three villages they landed in were all on the southern Nicaraguan side of the Rio (River) Coco, which forms the border, but marines and medics will also land in Honduras if needed.

The commandos opted to go in by helicopter rather than fast dinghies because the river is still about 30 feet above its usual level and the areas where they were most needed were about 95 miles inland. They were also aware that hundreds of landmines from the war in the 1980s - when US-backed Contra guerrillas fought Nicaragua's Sandinista army - may have been dislodged by the floods and left floating in the river.

HMS Ocean is part of a three-vessel task force, commanded by Royal Navy captain Bob Turner, with the RFA Sir Tristram and HMS Sheffield, the latter on duty as the traditional West Indian guardship.

The Tristram split from the others yesterday to pick up more marines from 45 Commando in the former British colony of Belize, who had helped with hurricane evacuation there at the end of last month.

Nicaragua's Defence Minister, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, the son of former president Violeta Chamorro, boarded HMS Ocean yesterday to explain his country's priorities and work out an action plan for what the British forces have named Operation Tellar.

By yesterday afternoon, the marines had not yet located more than 900 villagers, including 500 children, thought to be stranded by floodwaters on the border, according to reconnaissance video pictures taken by a Royal Navy Lynx helicopter from HMS Sheffield. In the settlements they reached, the British forces found the villagers "not in as great distress as we had expected", according to Commander Marsh.

"You've got to remember they live in a flood plain anyway. Their houses are built on stilts because they are used to flooding."

n The cash crops that are the backbone of Central American economies could take years to recover from the devastation wreaked by Hurricane Mitch, an economist at the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation said yesterday.

Liliana Balbi of the Rome-based FAO said: "In May the next cereal and bean crops, the main staples, will be planted. You could assume there would be an emergency lasting until the next main harvest next July.

"But the rest of the crops - coffee, bananas - take longer to rehabilitate. That could take maybe three or four years depending on the response of the international community."

Cholera fears, page 14