Navy helps Montserrat evacuation

The Royal Navy will today help to evacuate residents of the British colony of Montserrat after warnings that the next eruption of the Soufriere volcano could engulf the entire Caribbean island.

The frigate HMS Liverpool has anchored off Little Bay, in the safest zone on the north-eastern coast, to supervise the evacuation. But refugees will initially be taken by ferry to the nearby island of Antigua and the Liverpool is likely to ship people out only in the event of a large-scale eruption. US, French and Dutch naval vessels are also on standby. A series of earth tremors on Monday added to the fears of an eruption. Similar tremors preceded several volcanic explosions last week which showered ash clouds and hot pumice stones. The situation appeared to be degenerating yesterday after a street protest at what was perceived to be the confusing stance taken by both the British and local government over whether and how an evacuation would take place. In the township of Gerald's Bottom, which houses several hundred evacuees from the volcano battered south, residents confirmed that at least 50 evacuees had protested earlier in the day. They blocked a road in Salem with oil cans and pews from a nearby church serving as a shelter.

Their main grievance appeared to be the failure of Britain and the local government to give details of a promised "voluntary repatriation package" Britain had announced the package at the weekend, but without giving details of how much assistance would be given. In the tiny wooden shack at Gerald's Bottom known as The Silver Town Bar, evacuees shouted noisily at me asking me to ensure that Britain heard of the protest. "Do not play it small man, play it big," said Jane Sweeney, 51, owner of the bar. "Most people here want to leave, but no have money."

Asked where she would prefer to go with her eight children and five grandchildren, she said "London, straight to London, nowhere else.

"Ready to go now, here feel too hot. The heat is killing me," she said. "I have lived here since 1959, but with this volcano at night the heat is burning me down. I love my country. I do not love London but I want to go. Big stones fall over here. Everybody want to leave."

Local disorder appeared to be building as six prisoners among those evacuated at the weekend from a library serving as a prison, escaped yesterday, including a murderer. The escape was a big talking point on the island, traditionally bereft of crime.

Navy personnel onshore will help register evacuees and organise the ferry boardings.

Britain continued to insist yesterday that the evacuation was so far only a "voluntary repatriation package" for those of the remaining 4,000 islanders who wish to leave and no one would be forced to go. The British government supported the construction of a new capital in the north, probably close to Little Bay or nearby Carr's Bay, sources said.

But with the remaining residents crammed into private homes, churches, tents or shelters in the rocky north, with few facilities, it appeared increasingly unfeasible they could remain there for long. Though many were refusing to leave the central zone, notably the township of Salem, where officials ordered evacuation last Saturday because of the danger of a pyroclastic flow of superheated ash, gas and rock that would burn everything in its path to cinders within seconds.

Despite the dangers, a few people yesterday opened their shops or bars - simple wooden shacks thrown up after the evacuation last year of the now-destroyed capital, Plymouth.

Islanders expressed increasing frustration over mixed signals from British officials as to whether London favoured a total evacuation, at least until the volcano settles down, or keeping people on the island to press ahead with development in the north. Many were awaiting details of the voluntary repatriation package before deciding whether to stay or go.

George Foulkes, British Minister for International Development, warned at the weekend of the possibility of a cataclysmic eruption and for the first time said even the north was not safe. Clive Mansfield, a spokes- man for the British governor Frank Savage, then put out a statement saying: "The north is safe. There's no question of anyone being forced off the island."

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