Australian search team to leave quake-hit Japan

SYDNEY, March 19, 2011 (AFP) - Australian rescuers will begin pulling out of Japan's quake and tsunami-hit north on Saturday, the government said, adding that it was not prepared to place them unnecessarily at risk.

Attorney-General Robert McClelland said the 72-person urban search and rescue team which had been working at the devastated town of Minamisanriku were experts at recovering people trapped in collapsed buildings.

"Working with rescue sniffer dogs from Queensland, the team's principal task was to carry out search and recovery operations," McClelland said in a statement, adding that this task had now been completed.

The team had been searching for survivors in areas in northern Honshu which had been "utterly devastated", forcing them to tunnel through collapsed buildings, McClelland said.

Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs has advised its citizens to avoid northern Honshu because of the damage to infrastructure and uncertainty about the status of the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant.

"While there is no current threat to the safety of the team, the government is not prepared to put these rescuers unnecessarily at risk and is withdrawing the team now their search and rescue tasking has been completed," McClelland said.

Search and rescue teams from the United States, Britain, New Zealand, Germany and Switzerland have also returned home, he added in the statement.

Australia has donated the team's tented accommodation - including generators, beds and food stocks - to Japan and its medical cache to a local hospital, he added.

McClelland thanked the group, which faced logistical issues such as fuel shortages and poor communications, as well as temperatures which plummeted as low as minus 17 degrees (1F) at night, for their difficult work.

Despite the rescuers pulling out, Australia Saturday extended its military involvement in recovery efforts in the disaster-hit country for another week at the request of Japan and the United States.

Australia has defence personnel and a Royal Australian Air Force C-17A Globemaster in Japan to provide much needed airlift support to Japan during the crisis caused by the 9.0-magnitude quake and tsunami which hit on March 11.