Thousands flee Japanese resort as volcano spews out clouds of toxic gas

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The Independent Online

Vast sulphurous clouds of smoke and ash spewed more than 8,000ft into the sky from one of Japan's most active volcanoes yesterday, forcing thousands of people to flee a resort area popular for its hot springs.

Vast sulphurous clouds of smoke and ash spewed more than 8,000ft into the sky from one of Japan's most active volcanoes yesterday, forcing thousands of people to flee a resort area popular for its hot springs.

The eruption from the snow-capped peak of Mount Usu sent tons of rocks hurtling skywards as the plumes of acrid grey smoke rose from the cone-shaped mountain. A thin carpet of ash coated cars and houses and a series of earth tremors shook surrounding towns and villages.

In the nearby town of Abuta, navy search and rescue teams rescued the entire population of 2,000 from homes perched precariously between the mountain and the sea. Many residents ran for cover as the clouds of sulphur and grit billowed towards them. There were no reports of casualties. Troops had already helped to clear more than 15,000 people from towns around the foot of the volcano. They were being housed in schools and public halls.

"The government will do whatever it can to deal with the situation," said Japan's Prime Minister, Keizo Obuchi. "But depending on developments, the eruption could cause even bigger damage."

Mount Usu last erupted in 1978 after a series of earthquakes that gave birth to a new and smaller volcano by its side. Mudslides triggered by that eruption killed three people.

Government vulcanologists said another big explosion appeared unlikely but added that it could take some time for the volcano to settle down. More eruptions were possible from new craters. "Mount Usu has had seven significant eruptions that we know of, and at no time has it ended quickly with only a small-scale eruption," said Professor Yoshio Katsui of Hokkaido University.

Snow was falling heavily yesterday morning, further coating the slopes of the volcano still shrouded by billowing smoke from five craters. Some 3,300 troops were providing food, water and blankets for evacuees. Others were on reconnaissance missions.

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