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First aid flights arrive in Tonga after a major volcanic eruption

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) - The first flights of fresh water and other aid to Tonga finally arrived on Thursday after the Pacific country's main airport runway was cleared of ash left by a huge volcanic eruption.

New Zealand and Australia each shipped military transport aircraft with water tanks, kits for temporary shelters, generators, sanitary supplies and communications equipment. The Australian aircraft also had a special sweeper to keep the runway clear.

The deliveries were delivered without the military personnel coming into contact with people at the airport in Tonga. This is because Tonga is desperate to make sure that foreigners do not bring in coronavirus. It has not had any outbreaks of COVID-19 and has only reported a single case since the pandemic began.

"This assistance will help our partners, the Tongan Government, meet the needs of the Tongan community and support immediate clean-up efforts," Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in a statement. "Many homes have been destroyed and many people have been displaced by the tsunami."

Japan also said it would send emergency aid, including drinking water and equipment to clean away volcanic ash. Two Hercules aircraft and a transport vessel carrying two CH-47 Chinook helicopters would possibly leave Thursday, the Department of Defense said.

Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told reporters that his ministry "will do everything we can for the disaster-stricken people of Tonga."

UN humanitarian officials report that about 84,000 people - more than 80% of Tonga's population - have been affected by the volcanic eruption, said UN spokesman Stéphane Dujarric, pointing to three deaths, injuries, loss of home and polluted water.

Communication with Tonga remains limited after Saturday's eruption and the tsunami appeared to have broken the single fiber optic cable that connects 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, even though some local telephone networks still work.

A telephone company, Digicel, said on Thursday that it had managed to restore the ability to make international calls from some places using a satellite connection, but that people would have to be patient due to high demand. It said it hoped to improve its service in the coming days.

A Navy patrol ship from New Zealand is also expected to arrive later 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 shipping lanes and the structural integrity of the quay in the capital Nuku'alofa after the eruption and tsunami.

Another New Zealand naval ship with 250,000 liters (66,000 gallons) of water is on its way. The ship can also produce tens of thousands of liters of fresh water every day using a desalination plant.

Three of Tonga's smaller islands suffered severe damage from tsunami waves, officials and the Red Cross said.

UN Dujarric said "all houses have apparently been destroyed on the island of Mango and only two houses are left on Fonoifua island, with extensive damage reported on Nomuka." He said evacuations are underway for people from the islands.

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

Dujarric said the most urgent humanitarian needs are clean water, food and non-food, and the top priorities are to re-establish communication services, including for international calls and the Internet.

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

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

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