Villagers flee as Mexican volcano erupts

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The Independent US

A volcano near Mexico City spouted spectacular showers of incandescent rock and ash, one of Popocatepetl's biggest eruptions since returning to life six years ago.

A volcano near Mexico City spouted spectacular showers of incandescent rock and ash, one of Popocatepetl's biggest eruptions since returning to life six years ago.

Yesterday's lava shower spread against the night sky like a fireworks show and prompted many residents of small towns finally to heed officials' pleas to evacuate.

President Vicente Fox said some smaller incandescent particles had fallen as far as six miles (9.6 kilometers) from the crater. "We continue on maximum alert, because this emergency is not over."

The eruption appeared to be the largest emission of molten rock from the peak since it rumbled back from a 70-year period of dormancy in 1994.

The nearest villages, almost all now completely evacuated, are about four miles (6.5 kilometers) away.

With sirens wailing, police drove through the deserted streets of Santiago Xalitzintla, one of the closest villages, shouting through bullhorns for the few remaining inhabitants to leave. Some refused.

"It could have been worse if this had been a brief, extremely violent eruption," said Servando de la Cruz, a scientist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. "It was a relatively moderate emission that lasted about an hour."

Mr De la Cruz warned: "These kind of events could be repeated."

The volcano also spewed a cloud of ash 2.5 miles (4 kilometers) high, which appeared to be blowing away from Mexico City 40 miles (65 kilometers) away.

"No major atmospheric effects are expected over large cities," said Mr Fox.

There have been no forced evacuations in the two dozen villages around the volcano, and officials say about 40,000 people have left the highest-risk area at the urging of the government.

Even as van-loads of residents fled down the slopes in the minutes after the eruption, some of those living within the seven-mile (11-kilometer) danger zone around the peak said they still would not leave.

"If we have to die, we have to die," said Julia Sanchez of San Nicolas, who was among those staying behind to guard belongings and livestock. "The government is not going to pay for what we could lose."

But deep rumbling from the volcano overnight, and the spectacular shower of red-hot rock over the high flanks of the peak Monday, prompted more locals to pack their cars.

"They already told us to leave, but we didn't believe them - until last night. Now we are scared," said Javier Hernandez, 71, huddled around a fire with five other men. Six female relatives slept under blankets in the back of a nearby pickup.

"We didn't sleep at all last night," he said. "It was thundering loudly."

Scientists have warned that lava at the base of the 17,886-foot (5,365-meter) Popocatepetl is causing pressure to build inside the mountain. That could trigger a strong eruption, throwing rocks and other debris for miles.

"It's like a pressure cooker," Interior Secretary Santiago Creel said. "It could lead to a situation the likes of which we've never seen."

The volcano, locally known as "Popo" or "Don Goyo," sits 40 miles (65 kilometers) southeast of Mexico City.

A major eruption is unlikely to do more than dust the metropolitan area's 20 million residents with ash. But some airlines have canceled flights to Mexico City for fear that ash already spewed by the volcano may damage their engines.

The last evacuation occurred in December 1994, when the volcano came back to life after lying dormant since 1927. It has been 800 years since its last catastrophic eruption.