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Foulkes is spared blast on volcano isle

If he had feared a "cataclysmic volcanic eruption" - his own much-quoted words of two weeks ago - or just a hail of rotten eggs from hecklers, George Foulkes, Britain's international development minister, ran into neither when he arrived on the Caribbean island of Montserrat yesterday.

The Soufriere Hills volcano, which he said two weeks ago could engulf the whole British colony, spewed ash clouds but kept quiet as Mr Foulkes flew in by helicopter from neighbouring Antigua on a fact-finding mission for the Prime Minister Tony Blair. The islanders were too polite, or simply disinterested, to protest.

"People here are still very sad, thinking of Princess Di. We are all too much in mourning to care about this government man," said Jane Sweeney, owner of a tiny wooden shack bar next to the helicopter landing pad at Gerald's Bottom in the northern "safe zone" of of the island. A few refugees left their nearby tent shelters to watch the British governor Frank Savage and Montserrat's Chief Minister David Brandt greet the envoy.

Mr Foulkes was the man whose "cataclysm" remarks, and suggestion that even the north was unsafe, triggered an evacuation, a media invasion, the overthrow of the local government chief and a rebuff for his boss, Clare Short. British scientists said his remarks were "hopelessly wrong".

In an attempt to put him straight, the scientists took him up on their own helicopter yesterday for a flight around the crater and a look at the devastated capital, Plymouth, and other stricken villages, as well as the "safe zone".

He then went into talks with Mr Brandt, who was reported to have rebuked him and called for urgent British material and moral support for the between 4 to 5,000 Montserratians now squeezed into the tiny northern zone. At least 6,000 islanders have fled to other islands.

"The clear message we are taking on this visit is that Britain will never abandon the people and the island of Montserrat," said Mr Foulkes. Responding to Mr Brandt's suggestion that any compensation should be for those islanders who stay as well as those who leave, he said he wanted to emphasise that Montserratians should have the option of going or staying.

"One of the things we will be doing is to determine what are the basic facilities that need to be provided in health, education, transportation and housing in the north to make life tolerable initially, and ultimately comfortable for those who wish to remain on the island."

Islanders, most of whom have lost everything they owned, were taken aback two weeks ago when Ms Short, then in charge of the British response to the crisis, accused them of whingeing. "They'll be wanting golden elephants next," she said.

Appearing to confirm that his boss had been removed from the Montserrat loop, Mr Foulkes said on his way to Montserrat: "[Mr Blair] told me he wanted me to resolve the situation and that he was relying on me to do that."