Thursday, April 05, 2007

Tsunami strikes Solomon Islands on Monday, relief efforts continue, Iran releases UK sailors

Ed Johnson, Bloomberg:


Emergency teams in the Solomon Islands are trying to prevent outbreaks of malaria and other diseases, after a tsunami killed 34 people and left 50,000 others needing aid, the United Nations and relief agencies said.

``If we cannot address the sanitation issue quickly it is going to be more disastrous than the tsunami itself,'' Frieda Kana, acting program manager for the humanitarian aid organization World Vision, said by telephone from the capital, Honiara, today. ``The tsunami claimed some lives, but diseases could claim more.''

More than 5,000 people whose homes were destroyed in the South Pacific nation need mosquito nets and medication against malaria, which is endemic in the region, the UN Children's Fund said. Diarrhea, pneumonia, flu and skin diseases are among the ailments that aid agencies must urgently tackle, Kana added.

Pacific nations, including Australia and New Zealand, pledged millions of dollars in emergency relief. A C130 Hercules aircraft with supplies including tarpaulins, water containers, ropes, blankets and medicine, left Australia today for the Solomons. A New Zealand military transport plane with water, food rations and other supplies arrived yesterday.

Japan will send emergency goods, including blankets and plastic sheeting to build shelters, worth 13 million yen ($110,000), Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement today.

Diarrhea Outbreak

About 30,000 children, half of them under the age of five, were affected by the April 2 tsunami and require ``urgent, life- saving assistance to survive,'' Unicef said in a statement. Diarrhea has broken out among children in a camp near Gizo, the town worst hit by the tsunami, the Associated Press reported, citing the Red Cross.

The tsunami, triggered by a magnitude 8.1 earthquake, swept away coastal villages in the Solomons. The archipelago, about 2,500 kilometers (1,550 miles) east of Australia, lies in the Pacific ``Ring of Fire'' and experiences frequent seismic tremors. The temblor was the strongest in the world since an 8.3 earthquake struck near the Kuril Islands northeast of Japan on Nov. 15 last year, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

Australia and South Pacific nations went on alert after the quake, on the advice of the U.S. Pacific Tsunami Warning Center. The epicenter was 45 kilometers from Gizo Island, leaving little time for the alert to reach residents.

``Despite a newly-strengthened warning system in the Pacific, which issued bulletins within minutes of the earthquake occurring and updated at regular intervals, a tsunami has again claimed lives and wreaked havoc on coastal communities,'' Koichiro Matsuura, director general of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, said in a statement.

The tsunami shows the need to develop a stronger emergency response in nations vulnerable to such disasters, Unesco said.

The UN body has been leading efforts to develop a warning system for the Indian Ocean since an earthquake near the coast of Indonesia's Sumatra in December 2004 caused a tsunami that killed more than 220,000 people in 12 countries. The Solomon Islands are about 7,300 kilometers east of Sumatra.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ed Johnson in Sydney at .

[To my shame, I forgot to put this up on Monday.]

Iran releases Brits

British Prime Minister Tony Blair welcomed the release of 15 sailors and marines held captive in Iran for nearly two weeks, and said London's measured response to the crisis had been effective.

During a brief statement, Blair thanked British allies in Europe, the UN Security Council and the Middle East for their help in securing freedom for the Royal Navy personnel.

"Throughout we have taken a measured approach, firm but calm, not negotiating but not confronting either," Blair said. "I'm glad that our 15 service personnel have been released and I know their release will come as a relief not just to them but to their families that have endured such stress and anxiety."

Iranian TV: British sailors will leave Teheran on Thursday
Blair directly addressed the Iranian people, saying that Britain respects and admires the country's "ancient civilization ... and proud and dignified history." "The disagreements we have with your government we wish to resolve peacefully through dialogue," Blair said.

Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, whose department has been locked in discussions with Iranian authorities since the sailors and marines were seized March 23, did not make a statement. But Defense Secretary Des Browne said the personnel had acted with dignity during their captivity.

"It is vital that we get them back home quickly and safely so they can be reunited with their families and loved ones _ that is our priority now," he said.

Earlier Wednesady, during a news conference in Teheran, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad surprisingly announced that the crew would be freed. Before the announcement, he decorated the coast guards who intercepted the crew with medals.

After the conference, Iranian State TV showed some of the sailors and marines - including Leading Seaman Faye Turney, the only woman among the 15 - shaking hands and speaking with the Iranian leader at the presidential palace.

An Iranian diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case, said the sailors would be handed over to British diplomats in Iran and that it would then be up to the Foreign Office to decide how they would return home.

"They will go through some brief formalities and then they will go to the embassy," the diplomat said. "They can go on a British Airways flight to Heathrow, they can go through the UAE, it is up to the British Embassy in Teheran in coordination with the Foreign Office here."

He said the Foreign Office or British Embassy would have to make the travel arrangements for the seized sailors. In London, a Foreign Office spokesman said those plans had not yet been made, and that officials wanted to "make sure we've actually got them in hand, and that they're safe and well."

IRNA, the Iranian state news agency, said the crew was to fly out of Iran by plane on Thursday at 8a.m. (0430 GMT). Quoting an unidentified official, it said "the formal procedure for the (sailors') departure is now under way," but did not elaborate.

The British personnel were captured by Iranian forces in the Persian Gulf on March 23 while patrolling for smugglers near the mouth of the Shatt al-Arab, a waterway that has long been a disputed dividing line between Iraq and Iran.

Teheran says the crew was in Iranian waters. Britain insists its troops were in Iraqi waters working under a UN mandate.

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