United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has offered the full support of the UN after a massive earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck Japan, killing dozens of people and destroying towns, villages and large swathes of infrastructure.
UN agencies say they are on standby to assist in Japan and any other countries that may also be hit by tsunamis in the wake of the quake, which was one of the strongest in recorded history.
The quake, which struck at 2:46pm local time, measured 8.9 on the Richter scale. Its epicentre was undersea, about 400 kilometres northeast of the Japanese capital, Tokyo. The subsequent tsunami inundated towns, villages and farmland along the coast.
Media reports indicate that at least 60 people are confirmed to have been killed, with the death toll expected to rise significantly.
"The world is shocked and saddened by the images coming from Japan this morning," Mr. Ban told reporters at UN Headquarters in New York.
"I want to express my deepest sympathies and heartfelt condolences to the Japanese people and Government, and most especially to those who lost family and friends in the earthquake and subsequent tsunami… We will be watching closely as the aftershocks are felt across the Pacific and South-East Asia throughout the day."
Mr. Ban said the UN would do all it could to mobilise humanitarian assistance and disaster risk reduction teams as soon as possible.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported that its officials are in contact with their Japanese counterparts to see how it can help with relief efforts. The UN has also alerted the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group (INSARAG), a global network of 80 countries and disaster response organisations under the UN umbrella.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reported that Japanese authorities have shut down several nuclear power plants and have extinguished a fire at one of them. No radiation release has been detected so far, the agency reported.
The IAEA said it was seeking further information on the situation at the nuclear power plants and research reactors, "including information on offsite and onsite electrical power supplies, cooling systems and the condition of the reactor buildings," and added that nuclear fuel requires continued cooling even after a plant is shut down.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has staff on standby across the Asia-Pacific region so that they can respond to calls for assistance. The agency's depot in Malaysia has stocks of high-energy biscuits and emergency equipment in place.
In his remarks today the UN Secretary-General noted that Japan is one of the most generous benefactors to other countries in the wake of a disaster or other major crisis.
"I sincerely hope that under the leadership of Prime Minister Kan Naoto, and the full support and solidarity of the international community, the Japanese people and Government will be able to overcome this difficult time as soon as possible."