Montserrat Chief Minister Resigns As People Reject Aid Offer
Bertrand Osborne, the Chief Minister of Montserrat, has resigned after losing the confidence of his ministers and his people.
Mr Osborne has come under severe criticism from politicians and demonstrators alike for being too pro-British, and for failing to negotiate firmly enough with the Government over an aid package.
Clare Short, British Secretary for International Development, has announced details of a £10m aid package to help people fleeing volcanic eruptions on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, but local people see the offer as a sick joke.
People will get their fares and grants amounting to six months' average wages to help them relocate to Britain or elsewhere in the Caribbean. At less than £2,500 per adult, the offer was met with derision at a demonstration on the island.
Now that Mr Osburne has resigned, another Montserrat politician, lawyer David Brandt will take his place. Mr Brandt has been heavily critical of Ms Short and the British aid offer, and is expected to demand a meeting with the Secretary of State to renegotiate a deal.
Officials had expected 3,500 Monserratians to opt to leave the island. Now, with the prospect of Mr Brandt's efforts to renegotiate a deal, and the present docility of the volcano, it is thought that many people will stay on in the hope of a better financial result.
Marsha Punter, a local businesswoman, told BBC News of the feeling of disgust among Montserratians: "We were hoping for fair treatment, not to be treated like rubbish. We have our homes here, we have our businesses here - and they're talking about leaving all that and going off for a couple of thousand pounds? That's crazy."
The evacuation of Montserrat, which is threatened by more volcanic eruptions, is under way and is entirely voluntary. But Montserrat's elected leaders had asked for four times the amount of aid Britain is offering.
Eugene Skerritt, Secretary to the Chief Minister of Montserrat, told the BBC he shared peoples' anger. "It's not just a question of money," he said "but it's an issue of national identity. People want respect. They deserve respect of politicians. There are those who don't seem to understand the great effect that turmoil and stress has had during the two years of the volcanic crisis."
The Government has been criticised by British and Montserratian politicians who believe it has taken too long to act over the plight of those made homeless by the Soufriere Hills volcano.
In Britain the Secretary of State for International Development, Clare Short, criticised the government in Montserrat. She says she had been in favour of giving Montserratians the freedom to choose between staying and evacuation, but that the democratically elected Government of the island had decided its people should stay.
Short: 'In favour of choice to evacuate'
"There hasn't been any delay on our part. Prior to the 16th August - when the scientific evidence changed and we had to get people out of the centre of the island - the government of Montserrat wanted everything that Britain was doing to be directed to developing the north of the island and didn't want us to assist anyone to leave."
"My own view was that the people of Montserrat should have had choices given what was happening to their island - their own government thought not. I understand that people are disgruntled, but we have acted very quickly."
Ms Short also defended the amount of money on offer. She said that in comparison to how much a family affected by a flood in her own constituency would get "this is a great deal of money". She added that taken as a whole the package was very good.
"The compensation amounts to £10.5m. Then you have to add the cost of benefits in Britain. We will also be contributing to the costs incurred by the Antiguan government, such as pressure on schools and hospitals. Taken as a whole, this package is very generous."
Meanwhile police on Montserrat had to be called to break up a demonstration by islanders protesting at the lack of information.
A Montserrat shop owner, Julian Romeo, summed up the general feeling: "We want to know what is happening. My friends from all over the United Kingdom and everywhere are calling and saying that Montserrat is being evacuated, and so far Montserratians know absolutely nothing."
The Royal Navy destroyer HMS Liverpool is co-ordinating the evacuation of residents to the nearby islands of Antigua and Guadeloupe by ferry.
HMS Liverpool: centre of operations
But the Foreign Office says that the number of islanders deciding to go is small. A spokesman said: "It is an orderly evacuation and people are not leaving in huge numbers."
Lieutenant Chris Carlisle, speaking from HMS Liverpool, said: "Generally, people are waiting. They are a little uneasy as they have not yet heard the relocation package. There is quite a bit of frustration."
Crew from the destroyer have built a processing centre at Little Bay in the north-west of the island for the evacuees. They will be able to choose whether to move to other Caribbean islands which have agreed to accept them, or to travel to Britain.
But both Antigua and Barbuda have already warned they will not be able to cope with a new influx of refugees.
Lib-Dems Demand Action
In the UK, the Liberal Democrats have condemned the Government for procrastinating over the humanitarian crisis. The party has demanded immediate clarification of the proposed aid package.
Jenny Tonge, Liberal Democrat International Development spokesman, said: "The Government has been dragging its feet all the way over Montserrat and the situation has now reached crisis point.
"The people of Montserrat have every right to know immediately what the British Government will offer them. They have nothing left and need assurances that they are not to spend years in a refugee camp waiting for something to happen."