November 25, 2005

Colombian volcano spews ash, fumes

Threat level lowered

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) -- Authorities lowered the threat level for a volcano in southwestern Colombia on Friday, a day after an eruption covered a nearby city in ash and forced the evacuation of thousands of people.

The 14,110-foot Galeras volcano appeared to be settling down, but the risk of further eruptions remained, said Julian Villaruel of Colombia's Volcanology Institute.

"It seems the activity is stabilizing," he said.

Several thousand families living in the volcano's shadow streamed out of the region after the eruption at dawn Thursday. The families had defied an earlier evacuation order. Officials were providing temporary shelter at a nearby tent camp and deployed police to abandoned villages to prevent looting.

But a handful of residents in Genoy, a small farming village, refused to leave, saying a statue of the Virgin Mary they erected near the crater would protect them.

"Proof of the Virgin Mary's support for us is that the ash fell on Pasto and not Genoy," said villager Dolores Triana.

Pasto, about 12 miles from the volcano, was blanketed by a layer of ash after Galeras blew, forcing residents to don goggles and face masks. (Anatomy of a volcano)

President Alvaro Uribe flew to Pasto on Friday to look at the situation and comfort displaced villagers, his office said.

"The government wants to help with goodwill -- first by providing temporary accommodation and second by acquiring land so that they (the farmers) can relocate elsewhere," Uribe told reporters late Thursday.

Uribe has pledged $14 million next year to buy land from villagers in high-risk areas, giving them the means to move beyond the volcano's reach.

The Galeras has a long history of activity. More than 100 minor tremors were felt during the volcano's last major eruption, in April 2002, although no damage or injury was reported. A 1993 eruption killed nine people, including five scientists who had descended into the crater to sample gases.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press.