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Short to witness volcano isle's fight for life

The islanders of Montserrat call her The Golden Elephant Lady. As well as a few less publishable nicknames. But The Golden Elephant Lady is going to enter the lion's den.

Britain's International Development Secretary, Clare Short, who accused the remaining residents of the volcano-ravaged British Caribbean colony last month of trying to squeeze money out of Britain - "they'll be wanting golden elephants next" - will visit the island later this year to see their plight first hand.

Her deputy, junior minister George Foulkes, made the announcement of her forthcoming visit yesterday at the end of a two day visit to Montserrat. In an about-turn from Ms Short's earlier policy, which appeared to encourage islanders to leave, Mr Foulkes also announced a five-year sustainable development plan to rebuild battered Montserrat in the 12-square mile northern safe zone where almost all remaining 4,000 Montserratians have moved.

The southern two-thirds of the island, including the devastated capital Plymouth and surrounding villages where most islanders lived, has been largely swamped by the volcano's pyroclastic flow of red hot ash, gas and rock.

Under the plan, a pounds 6.5m programme to build 250 emergency houses for refugees will go ahead "at full speed" on Lookout Hill, according to a joint statement made by Mr Foulkes, British governor Frank Savage and local government chief minister David Brandt. The housing project had previously been frozen.

The one remaining hospital, at Gerald's Park, which was threatened with closure, will now be upgraded as will roads, water and power systems "at the maximum possible speed", the statement said. Over the next six months, Britain would draw up the sustainable development plan "to provide the level of services and infrastructure appropriate to the needs of the community" over the next five years, including help for small-scale businesses.

Priority would be given to transport links, apparently referring to the possibility of a new airstrip. The old Blackburne airport is in the long-evacuated danger zone. At present, people come and go to the island of Antigua on a small cruise boat or a nine-seat helicopter.

A scheme to give islanders low-interest mortgages to build their own homes would also be launched, the statement said.

Britain pledged to "play its part" with regional and international banks and financial institutions to restore confidence in the financial sector and in the future of Montserrat.

The about-turn by Ms Short's department made it likely she would receive at least a polite welcome here, something that would have been unlikely after she accused the islanders of whingeing. "It's good she's coming," said Donna Emmanuel, a longtime American resident who has been fighting for the redevelopment of the island. "She may get hanged in effigy but it's good she's coming."

'The sooner she goes the better,' page 17