Switzerland is sending a team of about 25 rescue and medical experts accompanied by nine sniffer dogs [Reuters]

The international community has started to send disaster relief teams to help Japan in the wake of a massive earthquake and tsunami, with the UN sending a group to help co-ordinate work.

The team of disaster relief officials from the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) includes several Japanese speakers and an environmental expert.

"We are in the process of deploying nine experts who are among the most experienced we have for dealing with catastrophes," Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the UNOCHA, said on Saturday. 

"They will help evaluate needs and co-ordinate assistance with Japanese authorities."

The 8.9-magnitude earthquake, the strongest recorded in Japan, sent a 10-metre high tsunami ripping through towns and cities across the northeast coast on Friday.

Japanese media estimate that at least 1,300 people were killed. Japan's army has deployed about 50,000 troops for search and rescue operations.

'Simply heartbreaking'

The unfolding natural disaster has so far prompted offers of search and rescue help from 50 countries.

The UN announced late on Friday that four foreign search and rescue teams from Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and the US were on their way after Japan requested help.


China said rescuers were ready to help with earthquake relief, while Barack Obama, the US president, has mobilised the country's military to provide emergency aid after the disaster which he described as "simply heartbreaking".

Washington, which has nearly 40,000 military personnel in Japan, has ordered a flotilla including two aircraft carriers and support ships to the region to provide aid following the tsunami.

Singapore is also deploying an urban search and rescue team in Japan, UNOCHA spokeswoman Byrs said, as Switzerland announced it was sending a team of about 25 rescue and medical experts accompanied by nine sniffer dogs.

The team from Switzerland will be charged with searching for victims underneath the debris of the tsunami, Toni Frisch, head of the Swiss Humanitarian Aid Unit, said.

The Swiss unit comes from a pool of at least 700 people ready for duty whose skills range from engineering, seismology, telecommunications and war surgery.

Britain said it would be flying out 63 search and rescue personnel and two dogs to Japan later on Saturday in response to a request from Tokyo.

The team will take up to 11 tonnes of equipment, including heavy lifting and cutting equipment.

"People will have seen the scale of it, it's truly devastating, so we will need a really big co-ordinated international response and Britain is playing a full part in that," Jeremy Browne, from the country's foreign ministry, told the UK's Sky News.

He also said William Hague, Britain's foreign minister, had spoken to his counterpart in Japan and offered help if necessary following the explosion at the Japanese nuclear reactor.

Britain recently sent disaster search and rescue teams to New Zealand to assist after last month's earthquake in Christchurch which killed at least 166 people.

Source: Agencies