Island declares `war' on Britain

Clare Short's latest comments have further infuriated the inhabitants of Montserrat
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The Independent Online
The mouse is roaring. The remaining people of the volcano-stricken British colony of Montserrat declared "war" on the British government yesterday and said they would refuse to leave their beloved Caribbean island despite British pressure to do so.

They formed an emergency national consultative forum - including the local cabinet, newspaper editors, civil servants, private and public sector representatives and others - to fight for their cause.

It is a diplomatic war. Montserratians are a peaceful people. But they are determined not to leave the little island, 27 miles west of Antigua. They made their point at the weekend when only 16 of the remaining 4,000 islanders showed up for a British-planned "voluntary evacuation" to Antigua. It took a British navy destroyer and 250 naval personnel - watched by 100 journalists - to ensure they left safely. And most of the "evacuees" said they were only going to visit relatives in England and would be back.

Before the Soufriere Hills volcanco first erupted in 1995, there were 11,000 people on the island. At least 3,000 have moved to Britain, others to neighbouring islands.

New local Chief (Prime) Minister David Brandt said the British government was "forcing us to choose between misery and the unknown".

"Effectively, we are at war with the British government. Not with the British people. Britons understand our cause. They know what it would feel like to be forced to leave the British Isles," a senior government official told The Independent.

"Their own scientists say the north of the island is safe. But they're forcing us to leave. We have a message for Clare Short [Secretary of State for International Development]: `We ain't going, no way'." He was quoting from a calypso song by local star Arrow, who will sing along with Eric Clapton, Sting, Paul McCartney at a Montserrat aid concert in London on 15 September.

It has become clear to Montserratians that the British government wants them to leave the island despite scientists' claims that the Government has misread scientific reports and is grossly exaggerating the volcano's danger.

In recent interviews, Ms Short has called Montserratian leaders "irresponsible" and their requests for evacuation compensation "ludicrous". Islanders were stunned at the weekend to hear her compare their plight with that of flood victims in Wales.

In a interview with The Independent yesterday, new Chief Minister David Brandt slammed 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 said she would not come here and that her deputy, George Foulkes - who helped spark the latest crisis by talking of a possible "cataclysmic" eruption threatening the whole island - may cancel a planned visit later this week.

"Britain's own scientists say the north of the island is safe," said Mr Brandt, sworn in by British governor Frank Savage on Friday after street protests forced the resignation of his predecessor, Bertrand Osborne. "When it came to the Falklands, it was not a matter of per capita," he added, referring to Ms Short's proposal to link evacuation compensation with the local average wage.

"All we are asking for is a chance to rebuild our lives. The British government is not giving us that chance."

Publicly, Britain says it will help rebuild Montserrat, constructing a new capital city in the northern "safe zone" to replace Plymouth, largely burnt out and buried in volcanic ash. In reality, the Government has frozen such development and is encouraging islanders to leave.

"After World War Two, America rebuilt Europe from the ashes, even though it had no obligation to do so," said Mr Brandt. "I think it is distressing that a lady in Ms Short's position is making pontificating statements."

In describing local protests as minimal, and blaming the British media for blowing them up, Ms Short appeared to have missed a major point. Although recent street protests were small, virtually all remaining 4,000 islanders are opposed to the evacuation scheme.

The formation of the national consultative forum confirmed that. According to those who attended, the islanders decided to fight what they see as an attempt by Britain to drive them out by making it unviable to stay. It was at the forum's first meeting that the concept of "war" was first mentioned, by a cabinet minister.

As guest speaker at the forum's first meeting, the chief British scientist and vulcanologist on the island, Professor Stephen Sparks of Bristol University, slammed the Government - which sent him here - and particularly Mr Foulkes, for misreading a scientific report on the volcano. As a result, scientists at the Montserrat Volcano Observatory were rewriting the report "to ensure it is not misunderstood," Professor Sparks said.

He insisted that the north of the island was safe despite Mr Foulkes' statement last week that the whole island could be engulfed by a major eruption. That, according to Professor Sparks, was a chance in many thousands.

Another statement by Ms Short, suggesting that Montserratians were whingeing and would be "wanting golden elephants next", bought the response: "All we are asking for is to keep our mountain chickens." That is what they call the large frogs that roam the lush hills and are a local delicacy.

After the devastation of Plymouth, and the threat of further eruptions, the 4,000 remaining Montserratians are confined to a northern "safe zone" and are wondering why Britain is not fulfilling its promise to develop the area.

"They [the Montserratian local government] said we must spend money on Montserrat. I disagree with that," Ms Short said at the weekend. Her International Development Ministry has admitted that redevelopment funds have been re- directed towards an evacuation, even though few seem keen to evacuate. Representatives of the US construction firm Brown and Root say they have been told to suspend plans to build houses in the north.

Barclays Bank, one of two international banks still on the island, pulled out last week and the island's major UK-based insurance companies said they would cancel all policies this week. "How can we live here with no banks, no insurance, no shops, no homes?" said Sgt Kenneth Winspeare, the island's chief immigration officer, who said he would probably leave. The island's only dentist left at the weekend, one of the two remaining pharmacies said it was going and Britain is closing down the one remaining hospital.

While the Government appears bent on shutting the island down, international developers are eyeing Montserrat with a view to the time the volcano goes back to sleep. According to one visiting foreign consultant, "there are engineering solutions to this. You could build berms (land heaps) or dykes to divert any volcanic flow."