August 7, 2006

Philippines speeds up evacuation as volcano rumbles

LEGAZPI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) - The Philippines pushed for the faster evacuation of thousands of people near a shuddering volcano on Tuesday, but some were reluctant to leave their homes and farms despite the risk of an imminent eruption.

Disaster officials in the central province of Albay were trying to move 35,000 people from an 8-km (5-mile) danger zone on the southeast flank of Mount Mayon.

The most active of the country's 22 volcanoes has been belching ash and lava since July. But on Monday, the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology warned that Mayon could erupt at any time.

"Yesterday we evacuated 60 percent, but the evacuation is still ongoing until we take everybody out," Albay Governor Fernando Gonzales told Reuters.

Some villagers were refusing to abandon their livestock and vegetable plots for crowded schoolhouses, where families are being given shelter while they wait for Mayon to explode.

Gonzales said the police would forcibly remove those trying to stay in the danger zone.

President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo urged residents "not to flirt with danger" and said evacuation centers were prepared to offer basic needs and services.

"We are confident of achieving a zero-casualty toll in this looming natural disaster," she said in a statement.

Mayon, famed for its near-perfect cone shape, has erupted around 50 times over the past four centuries, most recently in 2000 and 2001. The most destructive eruption was in 1841 when lava flows buried a town and killed 1,200 people.

At Albay Central Elementary School, mothers washed children in the playground after a night spent on classroom floors.

Amy Carasig, a mother of two, said her husband had stayed behind to mind their pig farm.

"I evacuated because of the children but it's hard for us to make a living. Here, there are 15 to 16 families in a classroom," she said.

A four-storey wall of lava was less than 2 km from some villages. Volcanologists fear farmers will not be able to outrun the molten rock and flying boulders if Mayon erupts.

At night, locals go to observation points outside the danger zone to drink beer and look at the pyrotechnic spectacle.

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