Friday, March 19, 2010

Australia, Fiji Join Forces After Cyclone Tomas

Posted on - March 19, 2010

Relations between Australia and Fiji are frosty, but the nations are managing to co-operate in the wake of Cyclone Tomas.

Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith said despite a "strong difference" with the Fiji interim government, led by self-appointed prime minister Commodore Frank Bainimarama, the nations had banded together following the category-four cyclone.

"The co-operation on this point, as you would expect, has been the sort of professional diplomatic contact that we would want to see when there has been a serious natural disaster," Mr Smith said.

Australia and New Zealand imposed travel bans on Fiji's military regime after Bainimarama led a coup in December 2006, ousting the democratically elected government.

Since then the regime has tightened its grip on power, overturning the constitution, sacking all judges, imposing widespread media censorship, expelling foreign journalists and arresting and harassing people that oppose it.

Fiji is suspended from the Pacific islands Forum and the result has been an increasingly rancorous relationship.

However, on Wednesday Australian and New Zealand Defence Force aircraft were recruited to conduct aerial surveys of the northern and eastern divisions of Fiji which bore the brunt of Tomas.

A state of natural disaster was declared in the South Pacific nation on Tuesday after gusts of wind peaking at over 200 kilometres per hour and massive storm surges wiped out homes, crushed crops and forced the evacuation of 17,000 people.

The Defence Force aircraft delivered emergency aid to Vanua Levu, Fiji's second-largest island, on Friday morning for distribution among the isolated islands.

"We, of course, have a strong difference with the Fiji interim government," Mr Smith said.

"But we have no difference with the Fiji people

and no difficulty in rendering Fiji, the people of Fiji, humanitarian assistance, as we have in the past."

On Thursday night, the High Commission in Canberra tracked down the last nine Australians who had not been yet been accounted for in the battered regions of Fiji.

Fifty Australians were registered with the government as being in the area at the time of the cyclone.

Relief co-ordinator for the Fiji Disaster Management Office, Anthony Blake, said aerial surveys revealed the northern and central islands in the Lau Group had been the most severely affected by Tomas.

The Lomaiviti Group of islands copped "extensive damaged" caused by powerful storm surges and in northern island of Cikobia, seven of the 15 houses there "did fall over".

Mr Blake said recovery efforts were focused on schools and shelter - 1200 tarpaulins had been distributed and 363 people remained in evacuation centres.

On Friday, police confirmed the cyclone had claimed two lives - a man was washed away in a flooded waterway and a woman drowned in heavy surf as she tried to save her three children.

Mr Blake said full reports from ground assessments were due on Friday evening.

Australia and New Zealand government's had dedicated up to $A1 million to help Fiji in the aftermath of Tomas.

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