August 7, 2006

Philippines Fears Imminent Eruption of Volcano

By Karen Lema

MANILA -- The Philippine government evacuated thousands of villagers from around the Southeast Asian country's most active volcano on Monday after warning the rumbling mountain could explode at any time.

Mount Mayon, in the central province of Albay, has been spewing ash and boulders the size of cars since July, pushing a four-storey-high wall of lava more than 6 km (4 miles) down its southeastern slope.

"This morning we recorded at least six small explosions and this signifies that Mayon is almost ready to burst," said Ernesto Corpus, chief of eruption prediction at the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology (Phivolcs).

Phivolcs on Monday raised the alert level to 4, its final warning before an eruption. Disaster officials ordered the evacuation of around 34,000 people to centers outside an 8 km danger zone on the southeast side of the 2,462-meter volcano.

Defense Secretary Avelino Cruz said the evacuation would be completed within hours but warned that police would forcibly remove villagers who refuse to leave.

"If we have to carry them out bodily into the truck and get them out of the zone, the Task Force Mayon will do that," Cruz said at a news conference.

Cruz said volcanologists were looking at extending the danger zone to 10 km, which would mean about 74,000 people would have to flee their homes.

A 6-km no-go area, fringed by coconut plantations, now encircles the mountain. But the scalding lava and ash are less than 2 km from the nearest village.

Tourists have flocked to photograph the spectacle.

Residents reported seeing Mayon, famed for its near-perfect cone shape, belching cauliflower-like plumes of ash and gases 800 meters high on Monday.

The government has given 250 million pesos ($4.8 million) to cover the cost of running 34 evacuation centers for villagers.

The Philippines lies on the "Ring of Fire," a belt of volcanoes circling the Pacific Ocean that is also prone to earthquakes.

Mayon, the most active of 22 volcanoes in the country, has erupted around 50 times over the past four centuries. The most destructive came in 1841 when lava flows buried a town and killed 1,200 people.

The last times Mayon erupted was in 2000 and 2001.