Japanese prime minister tours disaster zone for first time

Japan’s leader, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, has toured the country’s disaster-ravaged north-eastern coast for the first time since the earthquake and tsunami struck, making a promise to beleaguered survivors.

“The government fully supports you until the end,” Prime Minister Kan told 250 evacuees at an elementary school in Rikuzentakata, a town of 20,000 that was almost wiped off the map by the tsunami. Kan delivered a similar message to all the disaster-affected communities he visited, underlining the resolve of the government to support and rebuild.

More than 16,000 people remain missing and officials believe 25,000 may have been killed by the double disaster.

Prime Minister Kan has toured the crisis-struck Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear complex, but Saturday’s visit marked his first tour of the towns and cities severely damaged or destroyed by the 9-magnitude earthquake and massive tsunami on March 11.

Kan stopped before the town hall in Rikuzentakata when he arrived in the city. The building, once the local hub of government authority, still stands, but all its windows have shattered and its entrance is blocked by tangled metal and other debris.

It was here that the Japanese prime minister stopped to observe a minute of silence for those lost.

On Sunday, a massive land, air and sea operation will be launched as authorities carry out a major sweep of the coastline, looking for bodies that may have been washed away by receding tsunami floodwaters.

More than 25,000 troops, supported by 65 ships and 120 helicopters will score the coast and offshore waters looking for the remains of victims. It is likely to be one of the last such operations as hopes fade of finding identifiable remains.

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