Volcano 'behaving' as New Zealand launches high-risk mission to recover bodies

 Volcano behaving as New Zealand launches high-risk mission to recover bodies

WHAKATANE (Reuters) - A New Zealand military team landed on a volcanic island on Friday morning to recover the bodies of eight people killed in an eruption this week, and police said the high-risk operation was going smoothly but slowly amid the risk of a fresh eruption.

White Island, located about 50 kilometers (31 miles) off the east coast of New Zealand's North Island is still spewing steam and is "highly volatile", experts have said, adding that it could erupt at any time.

"The volcano is behaving," Police Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement told reporters in Whakatane, adding the mission which began shortly after 6 a.m. (1700 GMT Thursday) would take most of the morning.

The weather, sea state and conditions on the island were all good, he said, but the operation was taking longer than expected due to the protective equipment the recovery team was wearing.

"There are many things that could go wrong with the plan given we don't control all the circumstances. But for the time being the plan is playing out as we had hoped," he added.

The volcano, a popular tourist destination for day-trips, erupted on Monday, spewing ash and steam over the island. The death toll stands at eight as those still on the island are officially classed as missing until they are formally identified.

More than two dozen people are still being treated for severe burns in New Zealand and Australia.

A blessing was held at sea with the victims' families before the mission was launched.

RISKS HIGH

Six bodies could be seen on White Island from the air and there would be "very limited" opportunity to search for the other two, the police said on Thursday.

Authorities have faced growing pressure from families of victims and the wider local community to recover the bodies as soon as possible. The recovery has been repeatedly delayed due to the risk it posed to the those involved in the operation.

The risks are still high - New Zealand's geological science agency GNS Science on Thursday put the risk of a further eruption over the next 24 hours at 50% to 60%.

On the shore, the mood was sombre, yet hopeful.

Dozens of family members waited looking at the sea for any sign of activity. Families were seen hugging and comforting each other.

There were 47 people on the island at the time of the eruption. Twenty-four of those were from Australia, nine from the United States, five from New Zealand, four from Germany, two each from China and Britain and one from Malaysia.

(Reporting by Charlotte Greenfield; Writing by Praveen Menon; Editing by Toby Chopra and Diane Craft)

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Updated Date: Dec 13, 2019 04:16:39 IST