Villagers evacuated as volcano erupts

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The Independent Online

Coastguard ships and military helicopters mobilized to rescue thousands of villagers from the base of a volcano that erupted Friday, spewing a roiling mixture of rock, gas and ash over the snowy countryside of Japan's northernmost main island.

Coastguard ships and military helicopters mobilized to rescue thousands of villagers from the base of a volcano that erupted Friday, spewing a roiling mixture of rock, gas and ash over the snowy countryside of Japan's northernmost main island.

There were no reports of injuries or damage, and the eruption appeared to be abating - at least temporarily - three hours after it sent a huge column of ash and debris shooting into the sky early Friday afternoon.

Officials warned that the danger was far from over, however.

"It is possible that widespread damage could result from this eruption," chief Cabinet spokesman Mikio Aoki said from the government's emergency headquarters in Tokyo. Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi was also at the headquarters monitoring the situation.

Roughly 51,000 people live in the coastal city of Date and several smaller towns near Usu, located 770 kilometers (475 miles) north of Tokyo on the island of Hokkaido.

Experts had predicted the eruption because of increased seismic activity that began earlier this week. The evacuation of more than 11,000 people began on Wednesday.

Almost immediately after the eruption, volcanic ash began to rain down on nearby towns. Residents downwind were soon also enveloped by the pungent smell of sulfur.

The coast guard, military and police mobilized shortly after the eruption to evacuate the village of Abuta, said coast guard spokesman Hirotaka Mikubo.

Abuta, located between the volcano and the ocean, has a population of about 13,000. Several hundred were evacuated by helicopter and truck, and the ships remained in Abuta port awaiting any others.

The military was called in mainly because of concerns over the possibility of landslides or mudslides caused by melting snow. Before the eruption, snow 30 centimeters (1 foot) deep covered much of the 732-meter (2,416-foot) volcano.

More snow began to fall Friday evening.

Two people were killed and 200 homes destroyed in mudslides following Usu's last eruptions, which began in 1977 and continued for several months into the following year.

On Friday, the plume rose from the volcano amid generally clear skies. Within two hours, it had risen to a height of 3,200 meters (10,560 feet), according to the nearby Muroran Observatory.

Mobile phone service was briefly cut off, but was quickly restored. Airline officials said some domestic flights to Hokkaido had been suspended, but that international flights were not delayed.

Many townspeople rushed into the streets and onto rooftops to watch the eruption, which was clearly visible for several kilometers (miles). Residents were calm, however, with most following directions to stay at evacuation centers or at their homes.

The eruption was surprisingly quiet - and was not preceded by any jolts. Most of the ash appeared to be wafting northeast over a nearby lake, and not over the more populous areas.

"We are worried that the wind direction will change," said Date Mayor Hidekichi Kikuya. "We have been spared so far, but that could change."

Kikuya said that there were no injuries reported in Date.

The eruption began early Friday afternoon with a rapidly expanding plume of white smoke rising from the northwest rim of the volcano's crater. The plume quickly turned darker as more ash and small debris became mixed in.

Japan is one of the world's most eruption-prone countries, with 86 active volcanoes.

This is the seventh major eruption of Mount Usu in the past 300 years. Fifty people died when the volcano erupted in 1822, its worst known eruption, according to the meteorological agency.

Japan has not had a fatal eruption since 1991.

An eruption of the 1,359-meter (4,459-foot) Mount Unzen that year sent avalanches of hot rocks sweeping through the outskirts of the town of Shimabara, in southern Japan, killing 43 people and leaving nearly 2,300 homeless.

Officials were concerned that Usu would also spew a similar mix of gas and rocks - called a pyroclastic flow. Such flows are extremely dangerous because they move very fast.

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