Tempers rise over volcano island shutdown

`Our assistance strategy for Montserrat needs to be delivered speedily'
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The Independent Online
A new steering committee was set up to oversee the crisis in Montserrat last night amid deepening anger over the handling of the affair. Its chief minister, David Brandt, claimed yesterday that Britain wanted to "close down" the island.

There were suggestions that Clare Short, the International Development Secretary, was being relieved of responsibility for the volcano-hit islanders after bad publicity surrounding her role in the affair. However, officials at Ms Short's department denied this last night, saying that the Foreign Office had always been in overall charge.

The new committee, made up of officials from the Department for International Development, Home Office, Foreign Office, Ministry of Defence, Treasury and Bank of England, will meet for the first time today. It will discuss resettlement packages for the islanders both in the region and in Britain, the development of infrastructure in the north of the island for those residents who choose to stay and assistance to the nearby island of Antigua, to which 3,000 Montserratians have fled.

Last night Downing Street issued a statement from Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary. "Our assistance strategy needs to be delivered speedily and efficiently. That requires co- operation across Whitehall. The new committee will ensure that the Government's four-point plan is implemented without delay," he said.

A decision is also to be taken today on whether Ms Short's deputy, George Foulkes, will visit Montserrat. Mr Brandt has already suggested that he would not be welcome.

Last night Mr Foulkes refuted suggestions that the situation had been exacerbated by his misunderstanding of a scientific report. It had been claimed that he had exaggerated the dangers of "a massively cataclysmic explosive eruption", which were in fact negligible.

"I quoted directly from the report... which said that the scientists had previously regarded the possibility of a cataclysmic eruption as negligible but could not now rule it out," he wrote.

The Soufriere Hills volcano staged its biggest recent eruption a week yesterday, sending red hot ash, rock and gas into a valley less than two miles from an inhabited area. British scientists said there could be worse eruptions in the next few days, advised people to wear hard hats and warned them to be ready to "make an orderly exit" from danger zones.

Despite the warnings, only a handful of Montserratians left on a British- organised "voluntary repatriation" ferry to the nearby island of Antigua yesterday. Only a few dozen of the 4,000 remaining islanders - from an original population of 11,000 - have left since the evacuation began on Saturday.

Mr Brandt said a new housing project backed by Jamaica "shamed the Mother Country."

Britain had frozen its own emergency housing programme along with other projects, he said, despite pledges that those who chose to stay would be looked after.

"I have the impression Britain wants us all to leave, and to close the island down," Mr Brandt told The Independent.