Australian PM visits Japan tsunami town

Julia Gillard is the first foreign leader to travel to Japan`s disaster zone.

Minamisanriku: Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard on Saturday visited the tsunami-devastated town of Minamisanriku, becoming the first foreign leader to travel to Japan`s disaster zone.

The town, which had a population of 17,600, was obliterated and more than 1,130 people killed or left missing when the massive wall of water triggered by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake smashed through the northeastern resort on March 11.

It was initially feared that more than half the population had been killed, so complete was the devastation.

Town Mayor Jin Sato briefed Gillard and escorted her on a tour of the destruction, which left whole streets a tangled mass of splintered timber and twisted metal.

"It is miraculous that anyone survived such devastation," Kyodo News quoted her as saying.

"It`s been amazing to see the spirit of the people... even in such difficult, difficult circumstances."

Gillard saw the ruins of the town`s three-storey anti-disaster centre, which was reduced to its red frame.

She also visited some of the thousands of survivors who are still living in emergency shelters and gave cuddly toy koala bears and kangaroos to the children.

Australia sent some 70 search and rescue workers to the town to help in the aftermath of the tsunami.

Japanese Foreign Minister Takeaki Matsumoto and Rob McNeil, chief superintendent of the New South Wales Fire Brigade who headed the rescue team, accompanied Gillard on her visit.

"Australia will do anything it can to assist during this very difficult period," Gillard said at a news conference on Thursday after talks with Prime Minister Naoto Kan.

She also vowed to ensure reliable supplies of natural resources and energy to help Japan recover from the disaster.

On Friday night, Gillard attended a fund-raising dinner in the Japanese capital to help victims of the disaster.

Australian pop princess Kylie Minogue, in Tokyo ahead of the start of her tour of Japan, where she is immensely popular, also went to the event but did not perform.

After wrapping up her four-day trip to Japan, Gillard was due in South Korea later Saturday where the threat from North Korea and wider regional security issues are likely to be on the agenda.

In Seoul, Gillard will commemorate one of Australia`s key military engagements of the Korean War, and meet President Lee Myung-Bak and Prime Minister Kim Kwang-Sik.

She then travels on Monday to Beijing, where she has said she will raise the issue of human rights, although Australia`s trade relationship with China worth some USD 50 billion a year will also be high on the agenda.

Bureau Report