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Ecuador volcano erupts, villagers evacuate

QUITO (Reuters) - Ecuadorean villagers fled their homes after the Andean nation’s “Throat of Fire” volcano erupted on Friday, spewing ash that forced officials to reroute some flights and close an airport, authorities said.

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In the second volcanic eruption in Latin America on Friday, loud explosions shook the ground and rattled windows near the volcano known as Tungurahua in the indigenous Quechua language, 130 km (81 miles) southeast of Quito, officials said.

Residents close to the 5,020-meter (16,500 feet) volcano were evacuated from Cusua and Juive Grande villages, the president’s office said in a statement.

Officials in the area said hundreds of families had been moved, while Ecuador’s aviation authorities closed the airport in coastal Guayaquil and altered the routes of some flights to avoid the ash cloud.

“The eruptive column is some 10 km (33,000 feet) high,” Hugo Yepes, director of Ecuador’s Geophysical Institute, told reporters.

Tungurahua has been classed as active since 1999 and had a strong eruption in 2008. It is one of eight active volcanoes in the country.

Yepes said ash plumes could “easily” reach the 35,000 to 40,000 feet at which long distance flights operate. “As such there should be at least a diversion for international routes,” he said.

Ash particles can cause serious damage if sucked into airplane engines. An Icelandic volcano caused widespread disruption and major losses for airlines after flights were grounded for days in Europe in mid-April.

The authorities temporarily closed the airport in Guayaquil, where the runway was covered in ash, and diverted planes heading there to Quito and Manta.

Officials also altered some flight routes to avoid the plume, including Lima-Quito and domestic routes between the capital and Guayaquil and the Andean city of Cuenca.

The national director of civil aviation, Fernando Guerrero, told Reuters that the Guayaquil airport would reopen later once the runway had been cleared.

The authorities have moved to safety about 500 families in five communities close to Tungurahua, officials said, while an unknown number of people left the area of their own accord.

“At the moment we are keeping a yellow alert in effect for the area,” said Fausto Chunata, mayor of the nearby town of Penipe, adding that they might order more evacuations later.

Banos, a town popular with foreign and local tourists, was among the places evacuated voluntarily, officials said.

In Guatemala, another geologically volatile Latin American country, villagers fled and the international airport was closed after the Pacaya volcano erupted close to its capital.

Writing by Frank Jack Daniel and Daniel Wallis; Editing by Jack Kimball and Sandra Maler