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British team starts rescue work

A British search and rescue team is due to start searching the ruins of a coastal city devastated by the Japanese tsunami, as concerns grow over the "inevitable reality" of UK casualties.

The Foreign Office's emergency helpline has been contacted by more than 4,000 calls from the worried loved-ones of those caught up in the disaster, which authorities fear has killed tens of thousands.

Government officials said there were no confirmed casualties from the UK so far, but around 17,000 British nationals were believed to be living and working in the country when the catastrophic quake struck on Friday.

A UK International Search and Rescue (Isar) team was due to join an international hunt for survivors in the city of Ofunato, about 100 miles north of Sendai on the east coast. The group, organised by the Department for International Development, flew into Japan on Sunday, made up of 63 UK fire service search and rescue specialists, two rescue dogs and a medical support team.

Roy Wilshire, leader of the UK search and rescue team, said the British group had met members of the US military and were in the process of travelling in convoy to Ofunato, which has a population of around 42,000.

He told the BBC: "There are apparently hundreds of people missing there and we are in a convoy of several hundred rescuers. When we arrive we will set up our base before taking instruction from members of the Japanese fire and rescue service."

The British Embassy in Tokyo has been bolstered with extra staff who were flown in from across Asia, London and the Americas to boost the support provided to British citizens.

Foreign Secretary William Hague said that a number of British nationals are unaccounted for in Japan, although there have so far been no confirmed reports of casualties. He urged any UK nationals who are in Japan or have left recently to contact the Foreign Office or the Embassy in Tokyo to confirm that they are safe.

David Warren, the British ambassador to Japan, offered some reassurance to families of Britons caught up in the crisis when he said most of the British nationals in the country were unlikely to have been in the worst-hit area. But, he added, the situation was "very fluid" and was changing every day.

Britain has offered to help the Japanese government deal with the aftermath of the nuclear incident, Mr Warren said. "Our nuclear industries have a long-standing and close relationship," he told the BBC.

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