Balls of fire light up sky in El Salvador festival

Sept 1 (Reuters) - Men with painted faces and masks pelted each other with rags drenched in gasoline and rolled into tight flaming balls, as the town of Nejapa in El Salvador celebrated its annual fireball festival.

The festival commemorates a volcanic eruption in 1658 that forced residents to abandon the small town, which is located about 30 kilometers (18 miles) north of San Salvador.

The tradition may have its roots in a local legend that the town's patron saint San Jeronimo was praying when the devil threw fireballs to distract him, said Jorge Escamilla, the mayor of Nejapa.

Late on Wednesday, opposing groups launched palm-sized fireballs at each other that lit up the night sky, while onlookers thronged the streets to cheer them on.

"It excites me, and it is a passion for me," said one of the participants, Elmer Portal. "This is culture, and this is love for Nejapa. Every year we will be here."

Reporting by Wilfredo Pineda, Rodolfo Pena Roja and Liamar Ramos, writing by Deepa Babington, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien

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