May 17, 2006

Volcano spews clouds of hot gas and ash

QUITO, Ecuador (Reuters) - Ecuador's Tungurahua volcano increased its activity on Wednesday, spewing large clouds of hot gas and prompting the government to renew a limited state of emergency in nearby towns.

President Alfredo Palacio late on Tuesday renewed a state of emergency in areas surrounding the 16,460-foot (5,020 metres) conical-shaped Tungurahua, located 81 miles south of the capital Quito.

Authorities said there are currently no plans to evacuate area residents.

"The volcanic activity has increased, but we have not recommended an evacuation yet," said a National Civil Defense spokeswoman. "We don't want to spark unneeded panic."

But flocks of villagers living near the volcano decided to voluntarily leave their homes at night, saying the loud explosions deprive them of sleep.

"This is like a horror movie, with loud sounds that bounce off the walls ... like the explosion of dynamite sticks," said Juan Salazar, the mayor of Penipe county located near the skirts of the volcano.

The crater stands little over a mile south of the tourist town of Banos whose 17,000 residents were forced to evacuate in 1999 after loud explosions and huge plumes of ash billowed out of the volcano.