Par­adise at the mercy of rapists and mur­der­ers

A chill­ing dis­patch from the hur­ri­cane-hit Caribbean is­land where Bri­tish com­man­dos are hunt­ing es­caped con­victs

Scottish Daily Mail - - Weekender - from An­drew Malone

On THE road into town on Tor­tola, a Bri­tish ter­ri­tory since the 17th cen­tury, vis­i­tors are usu­ally greeted by smil­ing lo­cals and azure seas.

The tourist guides talk of ‘pow­dery white-sand beaches, lush green moun­tains, shel­tered, yacht-filled har­bours’ and quaint spots like Ap­ple Bay and Smug­gler’s Cove.

no more: par­adise is lost on the Bri­tish Vir­gin Is­lands (BVI) af­ter Hur­ri­cane Irma bat­tered the area with winds gust­ing at around 200 miles an hour, blow­ing roofs off houses and leav­ing at least five peo­ple dead and dozens more in­jured.

As the first Bri­tish news­pa­per jour­nal­ist to reach the BVI, which have been cut off since the storm hit ten days ago, I wit­nessed the scenes of dev­as­ta­tion that have left Tor­tola, the largest is­land of this once ver­dant trop­i­cal ar­chi­pel­ago of 59 smaller is­lands, re­duced to bar­ren waste­land af­ter the hur­ri­cane blew al­most every leaf off al­most every tree.

Lo­cal es­ti­mates sug­gest that around 90 per cent of homes, busi­nesses and boats were dam­aged or de­stroyed.

‘It’s like a scene from Pass­chen­daele or the Somme,’ one Bri­tish mil­i­tary ad­viser told me. ‘Look around — the place has been dev­as­tated. We are here to pro­vide se­cu­rity and as­sis­tance.’

The of­fi­cer was one of an ad­vance party of 50 Royal Ma­rine Com­man­dos, who were dis­patched soon af­ter the dis­as­ter amid allegations that the Gov­ern­ment was slow to re­act com­pared to other coun­tries who im­me­di­ately be­gan mil­i­tary evac­u­a­tions.

THE dis­clo­sure came af­ter the Mail re­vealed the Gov­ern­ment’s £13 bil­lion for­eign aid fund could not be used to help these dev­as­tated UK ter­ri­to­ries — be­cause the is­lands are sup­pos­edly not poor enough to merit help.

That row is likely to in­ten­sify af­ter mil­i­tary sources told me the op­er­a­tion was in ‘dis­ar­ray’ from the be­gin­ning, with ser­vice per­son­nel forced to beg for weapons and am­mu­ni­tion from lo­cal po­lice be­cause their equip­ment did not ar­rive with them.

‘We have had to bor­row ra­tions, am­mu­ni­tion, weapons and other kit,’ the source told me last night. ‘It’s fair to say that the lo­gis­tics were not fully be­hind us, and there was some dis­ar­ray.’

Many troops have been bil­leted in the few un­dam­aged hol­i­day homes. Be­mused lo­cals watched as some per­son­nel landed by troop car­rier on the beach, pil­ing ashore with only side arms and the kit they could carry, hav­ing hitched a lift close to the is­land on a U.S. war­ship.

So badly de­layed was the Army’s equip­ment that units ar­rived with no ve­hi­cles, forc­ing them to bor­row trans­port from lo­cals and even use cars aban­doned at the air­port with the keys still in them.

In true gritty Bri­tish mil­i­tary fash­ion, the sol­diers on the ground — who num­ber 500 af­ter re­in­force­ments were flown in — brushed off con­cerns about lack of am­mu­ni­tion. Yet it meant some had only side arms for pro­tec­tion while com­bat­ing an orgy of loot­ing as crim­i­nal el­e­ments cashed in on the chaos.

‘We like to travel light and are al­ways adapt­able,’ said another Bri­tish sol­dier. ‘We are used to com­ing into dif­fi­cult sit­u­a­tions and get­ting by with what we have. The rest of the weapons and am­mu­ni­tion ar­rived not too long af­ter.’

These mat­ters were raised when For­eign Sec­re­tary Boris John­son ar­rived on Tor­tola this week to counter crit­i­cism of Bri­tish tar­di­ness.

At a meet­ing with mil­i­tary lead­ers, John­son was told ‘pas­sion­ately’ about con­cerns over the equip­ment de­ba­cle.

Hur­ri­cane Irma did not blow any­one any good on these dev­as­tated is­lands: the force of the storm de­stroyed the gates of a hill­top jail con­tain­ing more than 140 hard­ened crim­i­nals, in­clud­ing rapists and killers. Another gust de­mol­ished an inside wall hold­ing the in­mates in their cells.

The crim­i­nals did not miss their chance, over­whelm­ing guards and flee­ing the prison. Armed with ma­chetes and guns, they have added another layer of ter­ror and mis­ery.

With the is­lands in melt­down, ragged groups of pris­on­ers — among them some of the most no­to­ri­ous gang lead­ers in the Caribbean — roamed Tor­tola, rob­bing peo­ple and break­ing into their homes. There were un­con­firmed re­ports of rape.

Stand­ing in the wa­ter be­side their dev­as­tated home, Tim and Ser­ena Ron, a cou­ple with four chil­dren, told me these gangs had been wreak­ing may­hem.

‘They are rob­bing and loot­ing and rap­ing,’ Ser­ena, 27, told me. ‘Ev­ery­one knows ev­ery­one here, and there are four es­caped crim­i­nals driv­ing around in a car in this area alone, try­ing to rob as

much as they can.’ By last night, Bri­tish sol­diers had suc­ceeded in round­ing up more than 90 pris­on­ers, who are now be­ing held back at the jail, where the steel gate has been re­placed.

‘We think we have got most of the re­ally bad guys,’ one mil­i­tary source told me.

That was not a view shared by prison of­fi­cers. ‘There are still more than 40 crim­i­nals on the loose and they ain’t no an­gels,’ one told me. ‘These are se­ri­ous guys — killers and rapists. I wouldn’t be cel­e­brat­ing just yet.’

The Royal Ma­rine Com­man­dos were last night in­ten­si­fy­ing their man­hunt for the re­main­ing killers at large, with snipers po­si­tioned around the jail af­ter it emerged that some crim­i­nals had crept back into the prison for meals, be­fore re­turn­ing to the streets.

‘It’s true that some were caught when they went back to the jail for meals, think­ing the prison of­fi­cers would no longer be there,’ a Bri­tish mil­i­tary of­fi­cer told me. ‘We were there in­stead and rounded them up af­ter search­ing the cells and find­ing crude home-made weapons.’

Such is the law­less­ness that the mil­i­tary are en­forc­ing a street cur­few from 6pm to 9am, with any­one caught out dur­ing that time fac­ing im­me­di­ate ar­rest.

The sol­diers, who now have au­to­matic ri­fles af­ter more equip­ment ar­rived, have been granted a man­date to use ‘lethal force’ if lives are put at risk by the loot­ers.

Given the chal­lenges of slip­ping away by boat, it seems likely the re­main­ing pris­on­ers will be cap­tured, but the ram­pages of sev­eral of them are adding in­tense stress to a sit­u­a­tion that could hardly be worse.

Cer­tainly, Sam Bran­son, the ac­tor son of Sir Richard Bran­son, who owns Necker Is­land in the BVI, was tak­ing no chances when he ar­rived this week with more than £100,000 to dis­trib­ute to those most des­per­ately in need.

Be­fore fly­ing in on a pri­vately char­tered jet from Puerto Rico, he had warned ‘it’s re­ally sad to say there is a lot of civil un­rest — I don’t want to panic any­one, but it’s re­ally im­por­tant peo­ple are aware of the sit­u­a­tion there’.

Yet, amid the chaos as mil­i­tary he­li­copters be­gan evac­u­at­ing a hand­ful of UK hol­i­day­mak­ers who did not get out in time, Bran­son was left stranded and with­out any money or phone af­ter his three­ve­hi­cle se­cu­rity con­voy left the air­port with­out him.

While I gave him a lift to the only ho­tel still op­er­a­tional, Bran­son told me he sim­ply wanted to of­fer as­sis­tance. ‘It’s all re­ally, re­ally bad here,’ he said, look­ing out at build­ings and boats smashed to match­wood. ‘I just want to help peo­ple in any way I can.’

It is a mir­a­cle that only five peo­ple were killed on Tor­tola, but the dam­age to the in­fra­struc­ture is dev­as­tat­ing, with power lines and trees block­ing roads, and the mari­nas around the is­land — usu­ally an at­trac­tion for mil­lion­aire mariners — a mess of lux­ury boats piled on top of each other.

OMI­NOUSlY, last night more storms were bat­ter­ing the BVI, send­ing mud­slides and trees skid­ding on to roads. Some lo­cal peo­ple I spoke to had not eaten for days be­cause aid can­not get through.

‘What we fear most af­ter a dis­as­ter like this,’ one for­eign aid worker told me, ‘is the dan­ger of dis­eases, with sew­er­age sys­tems leak­ing into the wa­ter, and in­fec­tious dis­eases. This place needs help — now.’

By last night, heroic in spite of the short­ages, Bri­tish troops ap­peared to have re­stored or­der in the main towns.

Ser­ena Ron, who fled up a hill with her four chil­dren when huge waves swept away her home, asked me in de­spair: ‘Does any­one know what is hap­pen­ing to us? We are scared and hun­gry. Will more peo­ple come to help? What will be­come of us?’

As low­er­ing storm clouds — both lit­eral and metaphor­i­cal — con­tinue to swirl over Tor­tola, they are ques­tions which sim­ply do not have an an­swer.

Pic­ture: MoD

Ten­sion: Royal Marines on pa­trol in Tor­tola’s dev­as­tated streets this week

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