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Lava gushes from Philippine volcano, forcing thousands to flee

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Taal volcano spews ash
Taal volcano spews ash   -   Copyright  (AP Photo/Aaron Favila)   -   Aaron Favila
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Red-hot lava gushed out of a Philippine volcano Monday after a sudden eruption of ash and steam that forced villagers to flee and shut down Manila's international airport, offices and schools.

There were no immediate reports of casualties or major damage from Taal volcano's eruption south of the capital that began Sunday.

But clouds of ash blew more than 100 kilometres north, reaching the capital, Manila, and forcing the shutdown of the country's main airport with more than 240 international and domestic flights cancelled so far.

An alternative airport north of Manila at Clark Freeport remained open but authorities would shut it down too if ashfall threatens flights, the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines said.

The government's disaster-response agency reported about 8,000 villagers have moved to at least 38 evacuation centres in the hard-hit province of Batangas and nearby Cavite province, but officials expect the number to swell with hundreds of thousands more being brought out of harm's way.

Some residents could not move out of ash-blanketed villages due to a lack of transport and poor visibility. Some refused to leave their homes and farms, officials said.

'Panic'

``We have a problem, our people are panicking due to the volcano because they want to save their livelihood, their pigs and herds of cows,'' Mayor Wilson Maralit of Balete town told DZMM radio. ``We're trying to stop them from returning and warning that the volcano can explode again anytime and hit them.''

Maralit, whose town lies along the coastline of Taal Lake surrounding the erupting volcano, appealed for troops and additional police to be deployed to stop distraught residents from sneaking back to their high-risk coastal villages.

After months of restiveness that began last year, Taal suddenly rumbled back to life Sunday, blasting steam, ash and pebbles up to 10 to 15 kilometres into the sky, according to the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology.

The government volcano-monitoring agency raised the danger level around Taal three notches to level 4, indicating ``an imminent hazardous eruption.'' Level 5, the highest, means a hazardous eruption is underway and could affect a larger area with high-risk zones that would need to be cleared of people, said Renato Solidum, who heads the institute.

Ma. Antonio Bornas, the agency's chief volcanologist, said lava spurted out in fountains out of the volcano early Monday while its ash and steam ejections eased. It's hard to tell when the eruption would stop, she said, citing Taal's similar restiveness in the 1970s that lasted for about four months.

With the steam and ashfall easing, some residents began to shovel away the few inches of ash that covered everything from homes to cars and trees in Tagaytay, a popular upland resort city on a ridge that overlooks the picturesque volcano in the middle of a crater lake.

Ash closes Manila airport

Renelyn Bautista, a 38-year-old housewife who was among thousands of residents who fled from Batangas province’s Laurel town, said she hitched a ride to safety from her home with her two children, including a 4-month-old baby, after Taal erupted and the ground shook mildly.

“We hurriedly evacuated when the air turned muddy because of the ashfall and it started to smell like gunpowder,” Bautista said by phone.

(AP Photo/Aaron Favila)
Taal volcano in the Philippines erupted on Sunday(AP Photo/Aaron Favila)

Fallen ash covered the runways at Manila’s international airport Sunday night. All departing and arriving international and domestic flights were suspended “due to volcanic ash in the vicinity of the airport” and nearby air routes, the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines said.

Taal lies around 37 miles south of Manila.

The volcanology institute said the small island where the volcano lies is a “permanent danger zone,” although fishing villages have existed there for years. It asked nearby coastal communities “to take precautionary measures and be vigilant of possible lake water disturbances related to the ongoing unrest.”

Earthquakes

Heavy to light ashfall was reported in towns and cities several kilometres from the volcano, and officials advised residents to stay indoors and don masks and goggles for safety. Motorists were hampered by poor visibility, which was worsened by rainy weather.

Authorities recorded a series of earthquakes ahead of Sunday’s steam-driven explosion.

Taal is among two dozen active volcanoes in the Philippines, which lies along the so-called Pacific “Ring of Fire,” a seismically active region that is prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.