Thousands flee as underwater earthquakes jolt Japanese volcanic island

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The Independent Online

Thousands of people have forced to leave their homes and a flotilla of naval vessels has been placed on stand-by after Japanese scientists warned of an imminent volcanic eruption on a small Pacific island 120 miles from Tokyo.

Thousands of people have forced to leave their homes and a flotilla of naval vessels has been placed on stand-by after Japanese scientists warned of an imminent volcanic eruption on a small Pacific island 120 miles from Tokyo.

Almost 5,000 earthquakes, ranging from powerful jolts to small tremors detectable only by instruments, have taken place since Monday evening on the island of Miyakejima. Seismologists say this is the precursor to the eruption of the island's volcano. Military patrol vessels reported yesterday afternoon that the colour of the ocean had changed, indicating that the 2,700ft-high Mt Oyama may have begun to erupt below the surface.

About 2,500 people, two-thirds of the island's population, have been moved into schools and public halls and to the island's airstrip, which is closed to regular flights. Thirteen naval vessels, including destroyers and submarines, are on stand-by off the island in case full evacuation is needed.

In an eruption in 1940, 11 people were killed and 20 injured. In the last eruptionin 1983, the population escaped unharmed, although 400 houses, as well as forests and a lake, were destroyed by flowing lava.

Professor Yoshiaki Ida of the government's co-ordinating committee for the prediction of volcanic eruptions said: "Our biggest fear is that there will be violent explosions if an eruption takes place close to the shore."

A violent explosion - called a phreatic outburst - can occur when large amounts of molten lava come into contact with seawater. Steam was yesterday reported to be rising from the surface of the ocean, which had taken on a yellow tinge.

An emergency co-ordination team has been set up in the residence of Yoshiro Mori, the Prime Minister, whose coalition government was returned to power in Sunday's election. Miyakejima island is administered by the Tokyo city government, although itis some distance from thecapital, situated in a string of volcanic islands called the Izu chain.

The activity on Miyakejima has resulted in the second major volcanic emergency this year in Japan, which is perched on the world's biggest seismic fault line and is studded with active volcanoes.

In April, 13,000 people were safely moved from towns in the northern island of Hokkaido after the eruption of the Mount Usu volcano.

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