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First aid flights depart for Tonga after large volcanic eruption

The first flights carrying fresh water and other aid to Tonga were finally able to depart after the Pacific nation’s main runway was cleared of ash left by a huge volcanic eruption.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand – The first flights carrying fresh water and other aid to Tonga were finally able to depart on Thursday after the Pacific nation’s main airport runway was cleared of ash left by a huge volcanic eruption.

A C-130 Hercules military transport plane left New Zealand carrying water containers, kits for temporary shelters, generators, hygiene supplies and communications equipment, the New Zealand minister said of Foreign Affairs Nanaia Mahuta.

Australia also sent a C-17 Globemaster transport plane with another to follow carrying humanitarian supplies. The flights were all due to arrive in Tonga on Thursday afternoon.

“The plane is expected to stay on the ground for up to 90 minutes before returning to New Zealand,” Defense Minister Peeni Henare said.

Japan also said it would send emergency relief, including drinking water and materials to clean up volcanic ash. Two Hercules planes and a transport ship carrying two CH-47 Chinook helicopters may depart on Thursday, the Defense Department said.

Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told reporters that his ministry “will do everything in its power for disaster-stricken Tonga”.

UN humanitarian officials report that around 84,000 people – more than 80% of Tonga’s population – have been affected by the volcano’s eruption, UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said, noting three dead, injured, loss of homes and water pollution.

Communications with Tonga remain limited after Saturday’s eruption and tsunami appear to have severed the only fiber optic cable linking Tonga to the rest of the world. This means that most people have not been able to use the Internet or make phone calls abroad, although some local phone networks are still working.

A New Zealand Navy patrol boat is also expected to arrive later on Thursday. It carries hydrographic equipment and divers, and also has a helicopter to help deliver supplies.

Officials said the ship’s first task would be to check the shipping channels and structural integrity of the wharf in the capital, Nuku’alofa, after the eruption and tsunami.

Another New Zealand Navy vessel carrying 250,000 liters (66,000 gallons) of water is en route. The ship can also produce tens of thousands of liters of fresh water every day thanks to a desalination plant.

Three of Tonga’s smaller islands were badly damaged by tsunami waves, officials and the Red Cross said.

The UN’s Dujarric said “all houses have apparently been destroyed on Mango Island and only two houses remain on Fonoifua Island, with extensive damage reported in Nomuka.” He said evacuations are underway for people on the islands.

According to Tongan census figures, Mango is home to 36 people, Fonoifua to 69 and Nomuka to 239. The majority of Tongans live on the main island of Tongatapu, where around 50 houses have been destroyed.

Dujarric said the most urgent humanitarian needs are drinking water, food and non-food items, and the main priorities are the restoration of communication services, including for international calls and the internet.

Tonga has so far avoided the widespread devastation that many initially feared.

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Associated Press writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo contributed to this report.