Montserrat's deserted capital is engulfed by volcano's fire

Plymouth, historic capital of the British colony of Montserrat, appeared headed for total destruction yesterday after a second day of volcanic eruption.

The town that once housed 5,000 people - evacuated to the hills, other islands or Britain two years ago - has been showered with red-hot debris from the towering Soufriere volcano. The local government offices, the police headquarters and the town's central petrol station have all been set on fire.

"Plymouth is pretty much all gone," said a helicopter pilot, Jim McMahon, after surveying the deserted capital yesterday morning. "Most of the town has now been affected one way or the other."

Scientists met yesterday to discuss the latest eruptions and decide whether the rest of the island - increasingly showered with debris since Sunday - was safe for the 5,000 or so islanders who remain, many of them in shelters.

"It's taken the heart out of Plymouth, if you will," said Phil Ellis, a spokesman for the British governor's office. "It's peppered the area with pebbles about an inch thick. The pyroclastic flow is now running easily through Plymouth since the path has been cleared by the initial flow. Many buildings have been razed. It's the worst activity since last September. We're encouraging everyone to move to higher ground."

In Britain, a benefit concert for Montserrat to be held at the Royal Albert hall in central London next month has stars such as Eric Clapton, Elton John, Mark Knopfler, Paul McCartney and Sting lined up to perform.

All 4,500 tickets were sold within 90 minutes of the box office opening last Friday. Callers were each limited to four tickets for the 15 September show at prices ranging from pounds 25 to pounds 100. It is hoped at least pounds 500,000 will be raised for the relief effort and to rebuild the island. All the musicians are giving their services for free.

The concert was the brainchild of Sir George Martin, the former Beatles producer who has a home on the island. His recording studio, where all the concert's stars have recorded, was destroyed by the first volcanic eruptions in 1995.

Announcing the relief effort for the people of the island, Sir George said: "Their warmth and kindness throughout the 10 years that Air Studios operated in Montserrat was overwhelming. For two years I have seen them suffer and live in appalling conditions with enormous courage and fortitude, and when the volcano erupted most violently in June, I knew I had to help in some way.

"I contacted many of the great artists who had recorded there and I am deeply touched by their ready response to help and perform."

The artists will play solo, in duets and all together on stage for a grand finale.

Geoff Baker, spokesman for Sir Paul McCartney, said the former Beatle was one of the first to use George Martin's studios, producing both Tug of Love there and Ebony and Ivory, his duet with Stevie Wonder.

"George is obviously a very old and dear friend from way back and this concert is the sort of thing Paul would do anyway. He loved the people when he was there. Thousands of them have been made homeless. It's like a paradise lost," Mr Baker said.

Sir George bought a plot of land and adopted the island as a second home in 1979. During the Eighties, a string of top bands played in the studio before relaxing by the pool or strolling to the beach. Dire Straits made the album Brothers in Arms and the Police recorded Synchronicity. The Rolling Stones rubbed shoulders with Duran Duran, Status Quo with Roger Daltrey of The Who.

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