NZ team returning from Japan

New Zealand's Fire Service Urban Search and Rescue team is returning from earthquake and tsunami ravaged Japan tomorrow.

Fire Service national commander Mike Hall said the team has been working with international and Japanese searchers in the Minamisanriku area, about 200km north of Tokyo.

"Sadly, the situation is such that we consider there is little further practical assistance we are able to provide in terms of search and rescue," he said.

"We have discussed our decision with the Japanese officials.

"It is now a week since the tsunami, the weather is very cold, and our assessment is that there is little chance of finding people in this area alive. The Japanese will continue with the emergency effort. This is not an easy decision to make but the search and rescue skills of our team are no longer best suited to Japan's needs," Mr Hall said.

Team leader and Fire Service national manager special operations Jim Stuart-Black said Japan had the resources needed to carry out the work.

"We are leaving with some sadness because we understand the challenges that are ahead of the families and emergency services."

He said the team was in good spirits and looking forward to spending time with their families.

Search and rescue teams from several other countries, including the United Kingdom, the United States, Switzerland, Germany and Australia have also completed their rescue missions.

Today the number of people confirmed as dead or listed as missing by Japan's national police agency topped 18,000, eight days after the massive earthquake and tsunami struck.

There were fears of a far higher death toll from the disaster that wiped out vast residential areas along the Pacific coast of northern Honshu island.

The national police agency said 7197 people had been confirmed dead and 10,905 officially listed as missing - a total of 18,102 - as a result of the March 11 catastrophe.

Hopes of finding many more survivors amid the rubble have diminished amid a cold snap that has hit Japan's northeast, covering much of the disaster area in snow earlier this week.


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