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Villagers Flee as Vanuatu Volcano Pumps Ash, Gas, Steam

A volcano pumping a huge plume of gas, steam and ash into the atmosphere from a crater ringed with dead trees is unlikely to explode in a devastating eruption, a vulcanologist said Thursday, bringing applause from anxious islanders.

About half of Ambae Island's 10,000 inhabitants have fled their huts built on Mount Manaro's jungle-covered slopes, and four ships are anchored offshore ready to evacuate the rest if necessary.

But as he watched seismological readings on the Pacific island — inspiration for the idyllic Bali Hai in James Michener's novel "Tales of the South Pacific" — the vulcanologist, Brad Scott, said his data suggested it is unlikely the volcano will blow.

If a large eruption were about to occur "we would see large-scale deformation at the summit, ... the (lake) water level rising, ... ground cracking, high temperatures. ... And we've not seen anything like that at all," he said, surrounded by curious children.

The most likely scenario was that the volcano would continue "like it is for some days or weeks," added Scott, of New Zealand's Institute of Geological and Nuclear Sciences.

At its current intensity, the volcanic activity was unlikely to cause a lahar — a devastating river of mud — by forcing up the level of the crater's Lake Vui, whose waters have been churned into a muddy gray-brown in recent days from their normally picturesque aqua blue.

Displaced villagers sat in the shade of trees Thursday watching the 10,000-foot plume as they waited to hear if they would be allowed go home or be forced to evacuate the island.

Thousands have already fled to makeshift camps on lower ground.

Roselyn Garae said some 200 people from her village of Lolovoli were trucked from their homes Monday to a school at Longana, amid fears the eruption could send a lahar crashing out of the crater.

As the volcano, which soars 4,920 feet out of the South Pacific, began spewing rocks and ash Nov. 27, villagers sent a team of boys to look into the crater.

"The volcano was throwing stones up the mountain which fell down into the hole again. So when they came back home and told us, we were very frightened," Roselyn Garae said in broken English.

"Our people were very sad to leave their own place, their properties ... that are very important for their life," added Garae. "They were afraid, and some did cry because they have never experienced this kind of erupting."

Obed Tabi, 42, a rural water chief, said the evacuations were the biggest the island has ever seen. The volcano last erupted in 1995.

"I've never faced anything like this in my life," he added. "We've had a disaster plan ready for a long time. Now it's working as we move people to safe areas."

Two hospitals on the island have been emptied of patients, and teams of doctors and nurses are on standby to fly to Ambae from the capital, Port Vila, if a major eruption occurs, the National Disaster Management Office said.

Villagers said they fled with only clothes, pots and a few utensils as ash began to rain down on their subsistence crops. Domestic and farm animals were left to fend for themselves.

Ambae lies in northern Vanuatu, an 80-island archipelago 1,400 miles northeast of Sydney, Australia.

About 100 villagers sheltering Thursday from the tropical sun under a spreading tree applauded another vulcanologist, Charlie Douglas, as he told them the volcano's readings have been relatively stable for four days.

But Garae said villagers remain anxious.

"Still we are afraid, we're really frightened ... And if it (begins) erupting very strong ... we are ready to move out from our island," Garae said.

"We (will be) very sorry to leave our island, but we want to save our people," she added.