Thousands flee as El Salvador volcano erupts

El Salvador’s largest volcano, dormant for more than a century, shook the ground as it woke up on Saturday, hurling out hot lava rocks and forcing more than 2 000 people to flee.

The Santa Ana or Ilamatepec volcano, located 66k west of the capital, rumbled and belched thick plumes of smoke that reached more than 15km into the sky just after 8.30am local time on Saturday.

Military emergency sirens blasted, calling for an immediate area evacuation of the hamlets in the coffee-growing area, and soon after the volcano began hurling glowing lava and ash from its crater.

The volcano ”has begun to expel magma on the side of the town of San Blas, while the ash is being carried by a south-southwesterly wind”, the University of El Salvador vulcanologist Francisco Barahona said.

Officials with the National Emergency Committee said that by 1pm, 2 250 people had been evacuated from the danger zone.

Hot lava rocks belched out by the volcano ranged from the size of a football to the size of a car, a reporter for news agency AFP on the scene reported.

At least seven people were injured by red-hot lava rocks spewed into the air by the eruption, the national police said.

Two people were missing when 200 residents were evacuated from the hamlet of Palo Campana, located just 2km from the crater. Residents fled aboard trucks when a flood of boiling water rushed down from the crater from three directions.

The Salvadoran interior ministry declared a red alert in a 4km radius around the volcano. A lesser ”yellow alert” was issued for adjacent areas, interior ministry spokesperson Rene Figueroa told reporters.

About 20 000 people live in the area surrounding the volcano.

President Antonio Saca called on El Salvadorans to remain calm, describing the eruption as one of ”moderate magnitude”.

The country’s civil protection forces have been deployed and are operational, he said.

Saca said he understood many people had never seen a volcano erupting and would like to get close to observe the phenomenon.

”This is not a game,” he warned. ”This could represent danger since we are not discounting another eruption.”

At 2 381m above sea level, the Santa Ana volcano is the highest point in El Salvador. It last erupted in 1904.

The volcano has been rumbling for days, and on Friday about 30 families living in the area were evacuated after columns of sulfuric smoke rose from the crater.

The nearest town — Santa Ana, population 100 000 and about 40km from the volcano — was not affected, officials said. — Sapa-AFP

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