AUSTRALIA DEFENDS DELAY IN CYCLONE RELIEF

MELBOURNE, Australia (Radio Australia, Jan. 3) - Australia's Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer says he's unsure whether they are any human casualties from Cyclone Zoe, which ravaged the Solomon Islands of Tikopia and Anuta at the weekend.

But he says aerial photographs taken by the crew of an Australian Hercules plane showed villagers rebuilding homes.

He has defended the delay in sending a rescue vessel saying the tiny atolls are in a remote area. Zoe hit the islands on Saturday, Dec. 28.

Australia and New Zealand are jointly funding a vessel laden with humanitarian supplies, which will sail from the Solomon's capital Honiara Thursday.

Martin Karani, Deputy Director of the Solomon Islands National Disaster Management Office says the vessel will have emergency food supplies, shelter and experts aboard who will assess the situation.

"We are estimating for one thousand three hundred people and that would be enough to keep them for two weeks, and then waiting for proper relief operation based on the report the assessment team will provide so that is enough to keep them while we prepare all the reports and seek further assistance from our donor partners and diplomatic friends in the Solomon Islands."

Meanwhile Australia's Federal Opposition is calling for a regional command center to be set up in Australia to respond to natural disasters across the South Pacific.

The opposition's Foreign Affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd says better regional response procedures must be put in place:

"We're proposing that under the Pacific Forum that a regional command center for natural disasters be established to cope with cyclones like we've had just now, and cyclones like we have virtually every season."

"We need a quick response time. We need an efficient system of communication. And we need the rapid delivery of emergency assistance."

January 3, 2003

For additional reports from Radio Australia, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Radio/TV News/Radio Australia.

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