Volcano isle braces for final blast

Thousands of people still left on the Caribbean island of Montserrat, now living amid a thick layer of ash and increasingly short of food, braced themselves yesterday for what could be the biggest eruption so far of the Soufriere volcano.

The local government and scientists said the worst earth tremors so far had been detected from inside the crater, heralding a major blast.

The fact that the volcano did not blow on Saturday for the first time after a week of regular 12-hourly eruptions suggests that the next eruption may be even worse than that of 25 June, which left around 20 people dead or missing.

In the hillside settlement of Flemmings, in the danger zone which is supposed to be evacuated when a siren wails, residents battled yesterday to clean grey ash from roofs, drains and inside their homes. Though in direct line of sight of the crater, many refuse to abandon their homes when the siren goes off.

"Don't pack your bags, just run, run, run to the north," goes a popular song played throughout the day on Radio Montserrat. "Black ash, run. White ash, run. Red ash, run." The radio tries to keep people's spirits up with upbeat volcano-related songs, interrupted only by routine death announcements and twice-daily volcano reports from British and Caribbean scientists. Across a ravine from Flemmings, in the village of Salem, Rastafarian youths, refugees and others sit on the steps of what they call the "Action House", because that is where they can watch the best "volcano action", that is, have a fine view of the crater.

Gazing up towards the crater, most wear surgical masks or military-style gas masks on account of the ash drifting through the air.

In the Desert Storm bar, a wooden shack "rum house", the manager, Larry Skerritt, said he feared for the state of the islanders' beloved Sturge Park cricket ground, believed to be under ash in the abandoned capital, Plymouth.

The ash is also killing the island's plants, making fruit and vegetables increasingly scarce. Refugees, sharing other families' homes or sleeping in tents or churches, complain of worsening hunger. Though stoical, they wonder why more vessels are not bringing food aid via the safe, northern part of the island.

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