Tsunami: government shunned emergency drill

Public hearings opened in Sweden on Thursday into the government's heavily-criticized handling of the December 2004 tsunami crisis and in which Prime Minister Göran Persson and his foreign minister are to testify.

Swedish media have speculated that the hearings could lead to a vote of no-confidence against Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds.

In the first of the dozen hearings to be held over the coming weeks, the director of the Swedish Emergency Management Agency was questioned.

In a report presented in December, a government-appointed commission lambasted the government for “lacking organization to handle serious crises” such as the December 26 Asian tsunami catastrophe, which left 543 Swedes dead.

As many as 20,000 Swedes were vacationing in Southeast Asia at the time of the Indian Ocean tsunami, most of them in Thailand.

In the first days after the disaster the government failed to realize the scope of the tragedy and did not offer injured Swedes medical care, transport home or other assistance.

The report said Persson had the ultimate responsibility for his administration’s shortcomings, but Freivalds received the harshest criticism.

She has been slammed for going to the theatre on the evening of December 26 as reports emerged of thousands of missing Swedes in the areas hit by the tsunami, and for saying that she was unaware that Thailand was a popular travel destination for Swedes.

On Thursday, the head of the Swedish Emergency Management Agency, Ann-Louise Eksborg, told the standing committee on the constitution which is conducting the hearings that the government chose not to participate in a large emergency drill in September 2004, just three months before the tsunami.

Several state agencies were involved in the exercise, which simulated a terrorist threat with a dirty bomb.

“The government offices are a key actor. If the government offices don’t take part in the exercise it limps along,” she said in testimony that was broadcast live on television and radio.

She said that no senior government official had taken part in any of the emergency drills held since July 2002.

In addition to the prime minister and foreign minister, several other members of the cabinet are expected to testify. The dates for their hearings have not yet been set.

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