West is urged to waive debt

RICH NATIONS should consider writing off the debt of Central American nations devastated by Hurricane Mitch, Emma Bonino, Europe's Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid, said yesterday.

Her intervention contrasted with comments by Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development, who has already rejected the notion.

The commissioner said the question of debt relief was 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.

But Ms Short said yesterday that such arguments were "misleading". 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."

Britain said that it had sent two more Royal Navy ships to help the humanitarian relief operations. The ships, which are in addition to the pounds 750,000 in aid already pledged by the Government, will arrive within days. HMS Sheffield, which has been helping with rescue work and this week saved one villager washed out to sea, will remain in the region, the Ministry of Defence said.

In Honduras, which has borne the brunt of the destruction, the government announced yesterday that all schools and colleges will be closed well into next year.

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.

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 threats of cholera from a lack of drinking water, and of 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.

The US President, Bill Clinton, has requested a "global relief effort" and has issued orders boosting US emergency aid to $70m (pounds 42m). 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.

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