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New Zealand launches risky mission to recover bodies from volcano

WHAKATANE (Reuters) – New Zealand’s military forces began a high-risk operation on volcanic White Island on Friday to recover bodies of eight people killed in an eruption this week, despite warnings that the island was still highly volatile.

Relatives hug as they wait for rescue mission, following the White Island volcano eruption in Whakatane, New Zealand, December 13, 2019. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Authorities have faced growing pressure from families of victims and the wider local community to recover the bodies as soon as possible. NZ police had previously refused to go in due to safety risks.

New Zealand defence force personnel are being deployed in the mission on Friday, along with assistance from the police and other agencies in the recovery mission that could take a few hours, police said.

The mission was to be launched from a navy ship off the island. The teams will wear protective gear, but the police gave no further details.

Six bodies could be seen and there would be “very limited” opportunity to search for the other two, Deputy Commissioner Mike Clement said on Thursday.

The risks are still high – the volcano on White Island was “highly volatile” and could erupt again within days, experts have warned.

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%.

“My concerns are about the weather, the direction of the wind, the sea state, because they all bring risk, they all add complexity,” Clement told reporters on Thursday.

“A lot has to go right for this to work,” he said.

Eight people have been officially declared dead, while more than 20 are still being treated for severe burns.

The volcano, a popular tourist destination for day-trips, erupted on Monday, spewing ash and steam over the island.

There were 47 people on the island, also known by its Maori name Whakaari, 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 Lisa Shumaker