PM Scott Morrison sees 'hard day' for Australians as volcano toll mounts

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison (right) and Foreign Minister Marise Payne address the media at Kirribilli House in Sydney, Australia on Dec 10, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SYDNEY (AFP) - Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Tuesday (Dec 10) would be a "very hard day" for families of Australians caught up in a deadly eruption at New Zealand's White Island volcano, with three feared dead and eight others missing.

Authorities hold out no hope for those tourists or guides still missing, with Mr Morrison saying the rescue operation had now "moved into recovery phase".

"With 11 Australians unaccounted for, three of those are feared to be amongst the five that have already been identified as deceased," he told reporters in Sydney.

He described the tourist excursion to the volcano as a "time of great innocence and joy interrupted by the horror of that eruption".

He said he was in frequent contact with New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, adding that they had feared "very difficult" news and "it is proving to be so".

"This is a very, very hard day for a lot of Australian families whose loved ones have been caught up in this terrible, terrible tragedy," Mr Morrison said.

A total of 47 people were at the popular tourist site in the Bay of Plenty when it erupted Monday, including 24 Australian cruise ship passengers aged between 17 and 72 years old.

The Ovation of the Seas left Sydney last week on a 12-day trip that would take in the Bay of Islands and several other tourist spots in New Zealand, including the waters around White Island.

So far, five are confirmed dead, 31 are receiving treatment in hospital for injuries including severe burns, eight are missing and three have been released from hospital, New Zealand police said.

Thirteen Australians were among those being treated in hospitals across New Zealand, including a number who were in a critical condition, Mr Morrison said.

"Obviously there are quite severe burns issues and that's why they are in so many different hospitals because they have been taken to the various burns units across New Zealand," he said.

As well as tourists from Australia, those caught up in the disaster include visitors from United States, Britain, China and Malaysia, and New Zealanders who were acting as guides.

The threat level at the volcano had been raised in recent days, and questions are already being raised about whether it was safe for tour groups to visit.

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