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Rescue teams fly to quake-hit Japan

A team of UK search and rescue specialists and medics are flying to Japan as the death toll from the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami that ripped through the country is expected to soar.

At least 1,300 people are believed to have been killed by the quake and wall of water, but thousands more are missing - including 10,000 from the Japanese coastal town of Minamisanriku.

The magnitude 8.9 earthquake was 8,000 times more powerful than the one which devastated Christchurch in New Zealand last month, making it one of the largest ever recorded.

It unleashed an unstoppable tsunami reaching heights of more than 20ft that swallowed everything in its path - from houses and cars to trains and ships. Strong aftershocks continued to rock the north-east area of the island nation, causing further panic and damage.

With every hour that passes from the moment the quake struck on Friday, the number of confirmed casualties rises, and the chance of finding survivors slips away. A spokesman for the Foreign Office said there were no reports of British casualties so far.

The UK emergency team organised by the Department for International Development (DfID) set off on board a private charter plane from Manchester after Foreign Secretary William Hague confirmed Japan requested assistance.

It is made up of 63 UK fire service search and rescue specialists, two rescue dogs and a medical support team drawn from Lancashire, Lincolnshire, Greater Manchester, West Sussex, Kent, West Midlands, Mid West Wales, Hertfordshire and Cheshire.

Meanwhile, the Japanese government said a partial meltdown is likely to be under way at the second nuclear reactor affected by Friday's earthquake. He said that radiation at the nuclear power plant in Fukushima briefly rose above legal limits, but it has since declined significantly.

Three reactors at the plant lost their cooling functions in the aftermath of quake and tsunami because of a power outage.

Chris Huhne, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, said: "The incident at Fukushima is clearly a very serious matter. We will be working closely with the IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) and Japan to carefully establish what lessons can be learned. If Japan needs any assistance in terms of nuclear physicists and expertise from the United Kingdom, we would be very willing to help."

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