Guatemala volcano erupts, thousands evacuated

GUATEMALA CITY Thu Sep 13, 2012 10:30pm EDT

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemala's Fuego volcano erupted on Thursday, spewing ash 2 miles into the sky and forcing the evacuation of thousands of people, but it was seen stabilizing by Friday, allowing evacuees to return home, emergency services said.

The volcano, 25 miles southwest of the capital Guatemala City, erupted in the early afternoon, belching a cloud of ash above the crater, Guatemala's emergency agency CONRED said in a statement.

But by Thursday evening, the eruptions had died down considerably and were soon expected to return to normal levels, said Sergio Cabanas, CONRED's director of emergency response.

Roughly 11,000 people had been evacuated, but no more evacuations would be necessary, Cabanas added.

"It is hoped that by tomorrow the volcano will return to normal activity and that families will be able to return home," he said.

Two lava flows, about 600 yards (meter) long, had headed down the sides of the volcano, accompanied by pyroclastic flows of hot rock and ash, CONRED said.

Speaking at a news conference during a state visit to Costa Rica, Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina said the eruption could affect people as far away as Guatemala City.

"It is a shame, but this is a fact of life in our country, so we will do the best we can to avoid people being harmed," he said.

The airport remains open but officials shut down the air approach route between Guatemala City's La Aurora Airport and Tapachula International Airport in Chiapas, Mexico.

"For the moment, we are urging caution because of the changing winds near the volcano, mainly from the east and southeast," civil aviation spokeswoman Oddra Lacs said.

Witnesses said the explosion darkened skies and prompted the closure of schools and universities.

"It is almost impossible to see the volcano because lots of ash is falling," said Ricardo Castillo, a 23-year-old Guatemalan English teacher at the Del Valle University in Santa Lucia, about 16 miles from the base of the volcano.

The Fuego volcano last erupted in May. A 2010 eruption at Pacaya, one of Guatemala's four active volcanoes, covered Guatemala City with a layer of ash, closed the airport and forced the evacuation of hundreds of families.

(Writing by Gabriel Stargardter; Editing by Simon Gardner and Stacey Joyce)