British bobby takes the heat out of explosive situation

They overturned rubbish bins, smashed beer bottles, banged bongo drums and expressed their disgust with the evacuation compensation package. The `voluntary repatriation' begins today
Salem - In all his years with the Sussex police, or on his native Isle of Wight, Chief Superintendent Frank Hooper had never seen anything like this. An anti-British riot, fists and batons swinging, shotguns and tear gas launchers loaded, Guinness bottles flying, high and angry Rastafarian youths demanding to see the Queen.

But the 51-year-old Montserrat police commissioner, every inch an English copper, handled it with aplomb.

He looks more like Michael Palin than Wyatt Earp and he was armed only with a walkie-talkie, but he walked into the rioters and single-handedly defused an ugly situation. It had threatened to produce bodies and turn into a national revolt on this volcano-battered island, but in the end everybody held hands and went home.

The first violent anti-British riot ever seen on the British Caribbean colony began shortly before four pm on Thursday afternoon. Within direct sight of the Soufriere Hills volcano that has changed Montserratians' lives, a couple of dozen Rastafarian youths assembled outside the Reggae Lounge, a wooden shack club in the township of Salem.

They overturned rubbish bins, smashed beer bottles, banged bongo drums and expressed their disgust with an evacuation compensation package announced earlier in the day by the Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short. The so-called "voluntary repatriation", or evacuation, begins today but most Montserratians consider the British package woefully inadequate and are wondering why they should now be encouraged to leave their island when the volcano is more peaceful than it has been for weeks.

"What did Britain ever do for us?" shouted one man, wearing a red, yellow and green woollen hat, and a T-shirt saying "Hey mon, no problem, Africa unite." For the first time in the modern history of this Caribbean colony, the local police, mostly from other Caribbean islands and wearing riot squad helmets they had never used before, waded in with their batons.

As bodies bounced off his outside wall and a policeman went down injured, Larry Skerritt closed the doors of his Desert Storm bar and came out to watch the action. The protesters continued to use his oil drum rubbish bins, full of empty Heineken and Guinness bottles, for ammunition.

That's when Mr Hooper arrived in his white Jeep, but before he could work out what was going on, half a dozen of his men, wearing British military gas masks and carrying tear gas launchers and shotguns, ran at the protesters, clubbing them, grabbing four of the ringleaders and hauling them off.

The protesters fought back and bottles flew but the Englishman, the only white man in sight, walked into the melee, pulled his men off and ordered them back. Surrounded by chanting and pushing youths, he began a dialogue.

"Let's calm it down, shall we?" he said. "This is not the way to go about it. I will take my officers away if you go away."

"I don't have no place to go," shouted Joseph Fagin, wielding a half- empty bottle of Guinness. "The volcano took my home.

"If you clean up the street, I'll release the men detained," said the police chief. "You go and fucking clean it up," replied Stedroy Brade, wearing a T-shirt that read: "Tough times don't last, tough people do. Soufriere volcano 1997."

"What is the protest about?" asked Mr Hooper. "Equal rights and justice," replied Mr Fagin. "I want a house with two bedrooms, a bathroom and a kitchen. I can't go to Antigua. Over-populated. I can't go to Guadeloupe. Don't speak French."

Mr Hooper's gas-masked men began to move forward. "Get back. Now!" yelled their boss. "We demand to see the Queen," shouted a protester.

"Let's stop all this messing about," said Mr Hooper. "Who's got a broom?"

"I'll clean up the street if you free our brothers," said Mr Brade.

"Free the prisoners. Fucking now!" Mr Hooper yelled to his men.

A dreadlocked youth got on his knees in front of the police commissioner, looked up at him and said: "You're a good man. You rule over me." The detained youths appeared, with ripped T-shirts and bruises, and rejoined their comrades.

One of the noisiest youths took Mr Hooper's hand and walked him back to his jeep as the protesters and bystanders applauded.

To complete Mr Hooper's memorable day, Agnes Cassell, a friendly but mentally-disturbed Salem resident, jumped on the bonnet of his car and danced to the reggae music from a nearby ghetto-blaster.

"I'm the poor fool who arrived here seven days before the volcano erupted [in 1995]," the commissioner told me later. "Nobody mentioned any volcano when I volunteered."

In the face of the mounting street protests, local government Chief Minister Bertrand Osborne handed in his resignation on Thursday night. His deputy, lawyer and parliamentarian David Brandt, is expected to replace him and form a new government but rumours are rife here that Britain may take outright control in the face of the volcano and evacuation crisis.

"These protests are a natural expression of people's frustrations," British Governor Frank Savage said on the local radio yesterday.

"The final turn of the screw of the volcano has proved just too much for us.

"But while I understand these frustrations, this sends a wrong signal. It's not our way in Montserrat."