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'People died in floods as ministers argued'

Clare Short came under heavy personal attack over her handling of the Mozambique crisis yesterday as Tories claimed that people died because of "infighting" between departments.

The Secretary of State for International Development and Geoffrey Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, had been at "loggerheads" over the cost of rescue operations and she had failed "utterly and completely" in her role, the Tories said.

Gary Streeter, the shadow Secretary of State for International Development, said during a Tory-led debate on the crisis that "wrangling" over money had delayed sending out helicopters to Mozambique to help in reaching the stricken thousands clinging to roofs and trees.

"The International Development Department did not move immediately. There was no rapid response mechanism involving the MoD or any other department," Mr Streeter said.

"It did not work smoothly. Mistakes were made, mistakes that did cost lives.The delay, indecision and in-fighting which undermined the British Government's response must never happen again," he said. Vital days were lost between the end of February and the beginning of this month in sending out relief helicopters.

But Ms Short said the Tories were "playing cheap games with such important matters" and making "false allegations".

She told MPs that her Department had spent £41m in responding to 78 natural disasters since June 1998, including floods in Vietnam, famine in North Korea and the huge earthquake in Turkey.

However, she risked further controversy, saying the UN coordination was a "little slow" in coming to Mozambique.

"There was no row of any kind between MoD and International Development Department ministers," she said. "The decision not to commission four Puma helicopters at £2.2m but to commission less costly helicopters from southern Africa caused no delay of any kind whatsoever in getting helicopters to Mozambique." There was no financial ceiling and the Treasury made it clear extra cash would be available if necessary, Ms Short said.

Jennifer Tonge, for the Liberal Democrats, said she did not believe discussions between the MoD and the International Development Department had delayed the provision of aid to Mozambique.

But, she said: "The UK and international community must be able to react to national disasters more quickly and effectively."