Japan requests foreign rescue teams, U.N. says

GENEVA Fri Mar 11, 2011 2:49pm EST

GENEVA (Reuters) - Japan has requested a limited number of foreign search and rescue teams to help with the aftermath of its major earthquake and tsunami, the United Nations said Friday.

More than 68 search and rescue teams from 45 countries have offered aid to Japan, which was hit by the earthquake and tsunami Friday in the northeast, it said.

"Japan has requested international search and rescue teams, but only a handful," Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said in Geneva.

At least four teams had been requested -- from Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and the United States, Byrs said. Japan's request was made before a strong quake with preliminary magnitude of 5.8 struck northwestern Japan early Saturday.

U.S. President Barack Obama spoke to Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan Friday to offer to help "in any way possible," the Japanese Jiji agency reported.

"The United States stands ready to help the Japanese people in this time of great trial ... The friendship and alliance between our two nations is unshakeable, and only strengthens our resolve to stand with the people of Japan as they overcome this tragedy," Obama said in a statement.

The U.S. Air Force flew coolant to the Fukushima nuclear plant to help deal with a potentially dangerous breakdown of the cooling system, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy also voiced solidarity. The European Union said Japan had requested search and rescue teams and search dogs.

"Europe's civil protection system has been fully mobilized to help Japan overcome this immense tragedy," said Kristalina Georgieva, Commissioner for International Cooperation, Humanitarian aid and Crisis Response.

The Russian emergency services agency ERMACOM offered 40 people with three sniffer dogs, while Singapore had civil defense forces on standby and Poland offered firefighters.

China and Switzerland also offered rescue teams, while Britain, France and others said they were ready to offer whatever help was required.

"The world is shocked and saddened by the images coming out of Japan this morning," U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon told reporters in New York. "We will do anything and everything we can at this very difficult time."

TSUNAMI

The biggest earthquake to hit Japan since records began rocked its northeast coast, triggering a 10-meter tsunami that was expected to kill at least 1,000 people.

The tsunami was initially said by the Red Cross to be higher than some of the Pacific islands that it could hit, but the agency later said that evacuations in many coastal areas in the vast Pacific rim, including the Philippines, had been efficient.

"Major concerns about the potential destruction that the tsunami could cause is abating, but we cannot be complacent until the situation is clearer," the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said in a statement.

"Lessons learnt from the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami are being put into practice," said the Federation, the world's largest disaster relief network.

Poorer nations were deemed a greater risk than Japan from the wall of water, though many have beefed up early warning systems and evacuation plans since the 2004 tsunami.

The Federation said it would take about 24 hours from the time the initial quake struck for the tsunami danger to pass.

Its regional logistics hub was on standby to provide 20,000 tents and other relief items to the Japanese Red Cross.

Separately, the International Committee of the Red Cross said it was working closely with the Japanese Red Cross and had launched a special "Family Links" website to help people seeking to re-establish contact with family members and friends. The website is here

More than 226,000 people were killed in the 2004 tsunami, which affected 13 Asian countries around the Indian Ocean and led to a huge international aid program.

(Additional reporting by Louis Charbonneau in New York and Rex Merrifield in Brussels; Editing by Elizabeth Piper)