Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.

Thousands flee volcano on Montserrat

"The best way to describe it is that day turned to night. An avalanche of ash obliterated vision for two minutes, then it lay like fine grey snow on the streets'', writes Phil Davison.

Claude Hogan, spokesman for the government of the British Caribbean island of Montserrat was describing the latest eruption of the Chance's Peak volcano which led to the evacuation of the capital, Plymouth, on Monday night.

Scientists believe there is now a 50-50 chance of a major eruption, this time spewing deadly lava, within days. No-one knows what that would mean for the 10,000 residents of the 40sq-mile tourist paradise.

While an RAF helicopter monitored the volcano yesterday, only three miles in a straight line from Plymouth,Royal Marines helped prepare contingency plans to put residents in tent cities or rush them from the island if necessary. The destroyer HMS Southampton was standing by off the island yesterday to evacuate islanders and tourists to nearby Antigua.

The Governor, Frank Savage, was forced to move out of his official residence on Monday night to a rented home, north of the so-called "safety line."

The gas and ash from the latest eruption, the most vigorous to date, caused respiratory problems until rain cleared the air during Monday night, Mr Hogan said. In all, 5,000 people, including the entire 1,500 population of Plymouth, were evacuated to schools, churches and community centres.