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Evacuees flee possible major volcano eruption

Text by News Wires

Latest update : 2009-12-24

The Philippines' most active volcano shot ash into the sky on Wednesday, as officials tried to bring Christmas cheer to tens of thousands of evacuees fleeing a possible major eruption.

AFP - People displaced by an erupting volcano braced for a "White Christmas" of a different kind on Thursday as Mount Mayon sprayed ash and politicians bearing gifts descended on crowded evacuation centres.

Rains ceased and the skies cleared on Christmas Eve for the first time in five days as tens of thousands forced to flee by the restive volcano weighed up whether they could return home to celebrate with the traditional midnight meal.

However authorities were warning them to stay put and not venture within eight kilometres (five miles) of the crater because of the hazards posed by scalding ash and red-hot lava flowing down its flanks.

"I advise the evacuees to stay at the evacuation centres for their own safety, rather than going home for Christmas," governor Joey Salceda said in a television broadcast to the people of Albay province.

Mayon, one of the country's most active volcanoes, started a relatively quiet eruption on Sunday, spewing ash and lava amid ominous rumbling sounds and hundreds of volcanic earthquakes a day.

More than 47,000 people, many from farms on its lower slopes, have since been ordered to leave their homes amid fears of possible "hazardous explosive eruptions" which a government advisory Thursday said could happen "within days".

Ash was seen shooting from the crater early Thursday, and was carried by winds to communities southeast of the cone.

"Mayon volcano is already erupting since the first explosions recorded on Sunday," chief government volcanologist Renato Solidum said on local radio.

"Based on previous eruptions, there would be a progressive escalation. From a lava flow, it graduates into throwing up ash and rocks. After that there could be stronger explosions with boulders and ash, or pyroclastic flows, shooting up several kilometres (miles) high," Solidum added.

The 2,460-metre (8,070-foot) volcano, which is famed for its near-perfect cone, has erupted 48 times in recorded history. In 1814, more than 1,200 people were killed as lava buried the town of Cagsawa.

Under clear skies people near the volcano were treated to the spectacular sight of glowing lava and fountains of searing rock shooting up from the crater early Thursday as they attended the last of the pre-dawn masses celebrated across the Roman Catholic nation in the 10 days before Christmas Day.

The airport in Legaspi remained open, with planes flying in to disgorge hundreds of holidaymakers, many of them relatives returning for family reunions.

Some posed for pictures as they left the plane, using the erupting volcano as a dramatic backdrop.

Forty year-old housewife Vilma Mirandilla's immediate problem was finding food to serve at the traditional midnight meal they would be eating at a local high school where they had sought refuge, along with more than 1,000 other people. The school has only 16 functioning toilets.

"On our first day here we were given two kilograms (4.4 pounds) of rice, a can of sardines and a pack of noodles," she told AFP.

"On the third day we got just two kilograms of rice and five kilograms of rice on the fourth day," she added.

But prospects appeared to brighten Thursday as candidates for the May 2010 presidential election drove into the evacuation centres aboard trucks laden with food.

At the Gogon Central School, which has been turned into a temporary home for 3,400 evacuees, a long queue formed at the back of a truck festooned with an orange banner welcoming the scheduled visit of Senator Manny Villar, one of those bidding to succeed President Gloria Arroyo next year.

A rival presidential candidate, Senator Richard Gordon, also flew into Legaspi on Thursday.

Former president Joseph Estrada, who is seeking a fresh six-year term after being deposed by a bloodless military coup less than three years after taking office in 1998, distributed relief goods around Mayon on Wednesday.

Date created : 2009-12-24