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Australian PM says 24 nationals were on New Zealand volcano

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Wellington (AFP)

At least 24 Australians were on New Zealand's White Island when its volcano erupted unexpectedly, and an unknown number of them were missing and feared dead, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has said.

Up to 50 people were visiting the popular tourist attraction when it exploded on Monday, with five confirmed dead, another 18 injured and the rest missing.

Some of the injured suffered serious burns.

Police have said they expect no more survivors will be found on the island off New Zealand's east coast after aerial reconnaissance flights found no signs of life.

The country's prime minister Jacinda Ardern was due to address reporters early Tuesday.

Morrison said 24 Australians were known to have been visiting the island as part of a Royal Caribbean cruise ship tour group, and an unspecified number remained unaccounted for.

"We have so far been able to identify a number of Australians who have been hospitalised and will be working further on this through the night," he said in a statement.

"We hope to know more in the morning, however we must prepare for some difficult news in the days ahead."

Police will assess whether a recovery mission to remove bodies from the island is possible Tuesday after saying that the risk of further eruptions made it to dangerous to land.

- Camera feeds went black -

The eruption at White Island -- also known as Whakaari -- occurred just after 2:00 pm Monday (0100 GMT), thrusting a thick plume of white ash 3.6 kilometres (12,000 feet) into the sky.

The island is about 50 kilometres (30 miles) offshore in the picturesque Bay of Plenty and attracts about 10,000 visitors every year.

Seconds before, live camera feeds showed a group of more than a half dozen people walking on the crater floor. Then the images went black.

As many as 30 of those involved are also believed to be cruise passengers on a day trip from the vessel Ovation of the Seas.

Royal Caribbean did not confirm the number but said it was working with authorities in the wake of the tragedy to provide medical resources and counselling to passengers and their families.

"We are also sending staff members from both our ship and our Sydney and Auckland offices to assist family members however possible," it said in a statement.

"Ovation of the Seas will remain in port as long as needed to assist with the situation."

Scientists said there had been increased activity at the volcano over the past week -- but nothing to indicate an eruption was imminent.

It is New Zealand's most active volcano cone and about 70 percent of it is underwater, according to government-backed agency GeoNet.

The country's National Emergency Management Agency described the eruption as "moderate", although the plume of ash was clearly visible from the mainland and from satellites flying overhead.

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