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Filipino evacuees gather at a provincial gymnasium following a tsunami alert in Albay province, eastern Philippines.
Filipino evacuees gather at a provincial gymnasium following a tsunami alert in Albay province, eastern Philippines.

UAE rescue teams on call for Japan

Emirati nationals in Japan have been contacted and embassy staff are reported safe; Filipinos relieved as wave is small in their homeland

Emirati search and rescue teams are on standby to be dispatched to Japan after yesterday’s earthquake and tsunami.

“The UAE search and rescue team is in a standby situation, and we are monitoring the situation,” said Lt Col Mohammed al Ansari, head of the UAE’s urban search and rescue team, which works closely with the United Nations. “We are available when we are needed on the Japanese side.”

Lt Col al Ansari said the UAE’s embassy in Tokyo was evacuated, with all employees safe and accounted for.

Emirati nationals in Japan including students studying in the country and visiting tourists have been contacted, he said.

“We will continue to be in contact with the embassy on the well-being of our people,” Lt Col al Ansari said. “Most of the UAE people are OK.”

Fadi Abu Gali, a Canadian who lives in Dubai, was with six friends on a snowboarding trip on the Japanese island of Hokkaido when the earthquake struck, shaking the chalet at their resort and knocking out telephone lines. The group previously endured a 7.2-magnitude earthquake on Wednesday.

“The shaking lasted a good minute that felt like an hour,” said Mr Gali, 37. “We are lucky because where we are, there was only shaking and not much damage, but for us it was quite an experience. The air is tense here. Everyone is glued to their TV screens and computers.”

Major avalanche warnings were also announced, he said.

Mr Gali’s group ventured into the town of Niseko late yesterday to offer what help they could. They described seeing residents shaken by numerous aftershocks and fearful of a possible volcanic eruption at nearby Mount Yotei. “We just got back from the town centre, and the mood is very sombre here,” Mr Gali said. “It is quiet, and everyone is already mourning in their own way.”

Koki Nagano, 22, a Japanese student, had flown home from Abu Dhabi on Thursday, and was in a meeting at the Tokyo Institute of Technology when the earthquake struck.

“At first, I felt the building slightly shaking, but … gradually the earthquake strengthened its power, and we could not stand any more without holding something,” said Mr Nagano, who was later evacuated from the city. “Some TV reports say it is the strongest we have seen, and I am very concerned about people suffering.”

Japanese embassy officials in the UAE said they had not received any distress calls so far from Emiratis, as Japanese communications had not been disrupted and lines were open for inquiries to Japan concerning the emergency.

“There is also an electronic message board that has been set up in Japan for people to make inquiries about family and friends via the internet,” said Setsuo Ohmori, the deputy chief of mission.

Over 3,700 Japanese nationals live in the Emirates, with about 3,000 based in Dubai and the remainder in Abu Dhabi.

For Filipinos in the Emirates, yesterday was a day of tension and, finally, relief.

Philippine civil defence officials lifted a tsunami alert last night after small waves hit the country’s Pacific seaboard.

The east coast was hit with waves not exceeding one metre. The government said there were no immediate reports of damage or casualties.

Jennifer de Leon, an accounts assistant in Dubai, said she had watched the news anxiously when it was feared that the Philippines would be hit by a tsunami. “I have already spoken to my mother back home,” Ms de Leon said.

“She said it was raining in Manila, and they were not stepping out of the house as a precaution. I am really worried and will be watching the news over the weekend to keep track of the situation.”

Marisol Belleza, 32, a secretary based in Sharjah, said she was relieved that her family in Legazpi City in Albay province, south-east of Manila, was safe and did not need to move to an evacuation centre.

She had spoken to her sister, Shiela Belleza, 38, who said that at 9pm Manila time (5pm in the UAE), local residents appeared calm but were prepared for an evacuation.

Earlier in the day, disaster management officials in Albay province instructed residents to move to designated evacuation sites that were at least five metres above sea level.

Working thousands of miles away from her hometown, Almira Hayagan, 42, a security officer based in Abu Dhabi, managed to contact her sister Ada Miras, 48, in the seaport in Legazpi City yesterday.

“I’m so happy that they were not affected by the tsunami,” she said. “I recall in 1986 we had to flee our home in Rapu-Rapu island because of a typhoon.”

Lelani Verar, 45, an engineer based in Ras al Khaimah, spoke of her relief that her hometown of Guinobatan, Albay was also spared.

“My sister assured me that they are safe and there was no need for me to worry,” she said.

“They’re even more concerned about me here because of the mass protests in the region.”

Adelio Cruz, the charge d’affaires at the Philippine embassy in Abu Dhabi, said that the necessary steps had been taken by the authorities and those living in the 19 provinces that had been put on alert. He said the embassy would continue to monitor the situation. “Filipinos are a resilient race,” he said. “We can weather this challenge.”

Indonesia has also been put on alert for a possible tsunami.

Hannan Hadi, the head of the consular section at the Indonesian embassy in Abu Dhabi, said authorities in Jakarta had issued tsunami warnings for the northern parts of North Sulawesi, North Maluku and Papua.

“There are quite a few Indonesian expatriates who are originally from these places,” he said.

“I believe that our local authorities are well equipped and are prepared to provide any assistance.”

Indonesia’s Aceh province was hit by a tsunami in December 2004, which killed over 170,000 people.

Flights between the UAE and Japan were temporarily interrupted yesterday, with one Emirates Airline flight from Dubai to Tokyo diverted to Osaka on Friday afternoon, an Emirates spokesperson confirmed.

“Emirates continues to monitor the situation closely and will resume operations to Narita as soon as possible,” Emirates said in a statement.

An Etihad Airways flight from Nagoya to Abu Dhabi and a flight from Nagoya and Tokyo to Abu Dhabi were operating according to schedule. “Etihad Airways is monitoring closely the effects of the devastating earthquake off the coast of Japan and the resulting tsunami,” Etihad said in a statement.

“Our immediate thoughts are with the country and its people at this extremely challenging and difficult time.”

Information for flights to other nations affected by tsunami warnings was not immediately available.

* The National, with additional reporting by Preeti Kannan

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