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Wednesday, January 27, 1999 Published at 15:42 GMT


UK rescuers fly to Colombia

Rescue workers are trying to find survivors

The UK is contributing specialist rescue workers to the relief operation in Colombia, following the earthquake which is reported to have claimed the lives of up to 2,000 people.

Ten British rescue workers, with expertise in searching for earthquake victims, are flying to the capital, Bogota, and then on to the devastated area near the city of Armenia.

The workers, volunteers of the International Rescue Corps (IRC), will join teams from the US and Japan to help search for survivors of the worst earthquake to hit the country this century.

The UK Government has also pledged help.

Prime Minister Tony Blair said that the British Embassy in Colombia had already made a "significant contribution".

He said: "We have already made significant sums of money available through the British Embassy and the pan-American health organisation as part of our immediate response to the needs of Colombia."

IRC help

The IRC is a UK-based charity that offers emergency assistance to disaster-hit areas.

David Willimott from the IRC: "People can survive for a number of days"
The group will be armed with thermal image cameras and seismic location equipment.

But a spokesman for the team admitted that the group, made up mainly of emergency services workers, could be face danger from the effects of after-shocks and collapsing rubble.

He said: "There is always an element of risk when you are crawling under rubble. There could also be after-shocks."

"A 10-man team is not going to save the day for everybody, but they are highly trained and they can find survivors under the rubble.

"And the important thing is that it is at no cost to the Colombian Government, the team will be totally self-sufficient."

The Department for International Development has also said it "stands ready to offer help and assistance once the immediate needs are evaluated".

It added: "We are closely monitoring the situation through the embassy in Bogota and the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Human Affairs."

A spokeswoman added that the scale of the British relief operation would be determined once exact details of what is needed by Colombia are received.

'It is a catastrophe'

Colombia's ambassador to London, Humberto De La Calle, said discussions were under way between the Colombian authorities, the British Embassy in Bogota and several British charities to decide how to organise the relief operation.

Mr De La Calle said: "It is a catastrophe. We really do need help. We have an efficient system of rescue but the tragedy is overwhelming."

He also confirmed that a special account will be set up at a major bank in Bogota to collect financial help.

But the UK International Development Secretary, Clare Short, warned against an "unco-ordinated international response".

She said: "Experience has shown that an unco-ordinated international response to such a crisis can undermine the efficiency of the relief effort."

Entire neighbourhoods were reduced to rubble after the earthquake ripped through five provinces and devastated more than 20 towns and cities in the west of the country on Monday.

Worst hit was the provincial capital, Armenia, where rescue workers have reportedly yet to reach hundreds of bodies trapped in 25 buildings that collapsed.

Oxfam has already said it will be transporting £35,000 worth of water equipment out to the disaster area on Thursday.

The equipment will provide clean water for more than 100,000 people, said a spokeswoman.

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