UK vows not to force evacuation from Montserrat

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Less than a fortnight after the biggest eruption so far in the current cycle of the Soufriere Hills volcano on Montserrat, a key British official insists that, if humanly possible, plans will go ahead to revive and redevelop the stricken Caribbean island.

"We need houses, houses and more houses," the official said yesterday. "We need low-interest mortgage schemes, and money to help small businessmen relocate" from Plymouth, the island's capital laid waste by a series of eruptions in the summer.

His remarks were intended to quell the continuing fears of many remaining Montserratians that Britain would declare the island unviable, and force them to leave their homeland for ever.

In fact a contingency plan Operation Exodus exists for the complete evacuation of the island should conditions become untenable, but the British government's position is that "as long as the island is safe, we'll remain committed to you".

Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, will visit the island next month to demonstrate that commitment.

Scientists now predict the volcano will probably remain active for the next two or three years, but that the northern third of Montserrat is safe.

But the 30 million cubic metres of ash and lava spewed forth by Soufriere Hills on Boxing Day has rendered the southern part, currently an exclusion zone into which entry is punishable with a $250 (pounds 156) fine or jail sentence, even more dangerous and uninhabitable.

Of the island's original 11,000 population, only 3,500 are left. Of these, 500 are living in temporary shelters, compared with 1,200 in October.