Volcano island gives Short shrift

Minister's criticisms provoke sharp response in Montserrat
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Clare Short sailed into a Caribbean storm last night after she lashed out at the islanders of Montserrat.

A hail of criticism descended on the Secretary of State for International Development from the island and from the Opposition as she claimed the inhabitants were seeking excessive compensation after most of the island was destroyed by a volcanic eruption. In a interview with The Independent, Montserrat's new Chief Minister, David Brandt, attacked Ms Short and challenged her to see the situation for herself. "She is refusing to come. I wonder if she can bear what she will see," he said.

Ms Short refused to visit the British possession to see conditions there for herself. "I'm not planning to go to possibly get more inaccurate denunciations of what we have been doing. I've actually got commitments to go to a lot of other places in the next few weeks," she said yesterday.

She said that George Foulkes, the minister in her department, should visit the island instead. But Mr Brandt said Mr Foulkes would not be welcome. Islanders believe that Mr Foulkes helped spark the latest crisis by talking of a possible "cataclysmic" eruption threatening the whole island. "Britain's own scientists say the north of the island is safe," said Mr Brandt, sworn in by the British Governor Frank Savage on Friday after street protests forced the resignation of his predecessor, Bertrand Osborne.

However, it was announced last night that PJ Patterson, the Jamaican Prime Minister, would spend today with officials on the island. He is chairman of the Caribbean Community and will assess the needs and is likely to offer aid.

More than half of the population of Montserrat has left since the Soufriere Hills volcano returned to life in July 1995 after nearly four centuries of dormancy. Eruptions in June destroyed seven villages and killed 19 people and the capital, Plymouth, has been razed almost to the ground. Britain offered compensation of pounds 2,500 per islander, which Montserratians considered far too low, sparking off the present political eruption from Ms Short. She accused the island's leaders of "sheer irresponsibility" in an interview with a Sunday newspaper, saying "they will be wanting golden elephants next".

Later, she apparently thought better of these comments. She said the reference to elephants was "extremely unfortunate," adding "I made a joke about asking for more and more and more ... it's a misrepresentation of what I was saying."

She said that "internal politics" in Montserrat had made the situation worse. "Part of it was posing as being the great critic of Britain, demanding more and more, denouncing what we were doing. That misrepresented what we were doing. For everything to calm down and be fairer and more accurate about what Britain is doing would help everyone."

Mr Brandt said that the islanders' demands were not excessive. "We are not asking for luxury. Our people have lost everything they have. We are asking for [the Government] to give us an opportunity to make a new start," he said.

Ms Short's handling of the affair also came under attack from critics nearer home. Alastair Goodlad, the Conservative international development spokesman, said that Ms Short should apologise for her "insensitive and insulting remarks". "At a time when the islanders desperately need help, all the Labour government can do is be rude about them: he said.

"We need an apology from Clare Short for her insensitive and insulting remarks and an immediate statement from the Government as to what they are going to do about this mess."

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrats' chief foreign affairs spokesman, called on the Government to use its reserve fund to help the islanders. "What is the contingency reserve for if it is not to deal with unexpected events like a volcanic eruption?" he asked.

Such is the anger on Montserrat that islanders are refusing to take up the offer of evacuation. Only 16 of the remaining 4,000 islanders showed up for a British-planned "voluntary evacuation" to Antigua at the weekend. Mr Brandt said the British government was "forcing us to choose between misery and the unknown".

Island declares 'war', page 8

Mount Clare erupts, page 15