Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Comoros volcano shows signs of activity

Lava bubbled from a volcano in the Comoros on Monday, frightening thousands on the Indian Ocean archipelago’s largest island who feared a full-blown eruption as they waited to see where the molten rock might flow.

An early morning reconnaissance flight over the crater of 2,361-metre (7,750-ft) Mount Karthala -- one of the world’s largest active volcanoes, which dominates the island of Grande Comore -- gave no new clues.

“The information we have is that the lava is flowing. The crater is full of lava. We don’t know which direction it will flow,” Col. Ismael Daho, head of the emergency management team for the Comoros archipelago, told Reuters.

He said the lava was covering an area about 3 km square (1.2 miles).

Residents were nervous, but the volcano’s periodic past eruptions, which have rarely caused a major disaster, have tempered some on the island of 300,000 against panicking.

“Everyone is scared. No one could sleep the whole night,” said Jimmy Mohamed, from the village of Nvouni on Karthala’s western slope.

“But we all stayed and no one left. We’re used to this.”

Nonetheless, some said they were frightened.

“I saw a bright light and black smoke coming out of the volcano, then everyone came out to watch it. We’re very scared,” said Chena Mohamed Ali, 35, who lives in the village of Itsinkoundi, on the east side of Karthala’s slopes.

“The mosques around here are full of people praying to God to calm the volcano,” he told Reuters by telephone.

Until African Union observation flights determine where the lava might flow, authorities urged people to wait for evacuation instructions.

Lush green slopes

The lush green slopes of Karthala, covered with vanilla and ylang ylang plantations, form most of the largest island of the three in the Comoros chain, 300 km (190 miles) off the coast of east Africa.

Karthala has rarely punished Grande Comore harshly.

The worst disaster on record came in 1903 when 17 died from noxious fumes that seeped from cracks.

The last big eruption, in April 2005, sent thousands fleeing in fear of poisonous gas and lava. That was the first eruption in more than a decade, but the volcano has erupted on average every 11 years over the past two centuries.

In November, Mount Karthala fired clouds of ash and sparks across the island, blanketing the capital Moroni and other villages in grey dust.

Moroni is about 15 km from Karthala’s crater.

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