BRISBANE (Reuters) - Thick clouds of volcanic ash have blown over the Papua New Guinea town of Rabaul and authorities said on Wednesday they were watching a nearby volcano closely for signs of increased activity.
The Tavurvur volcano in PNG's remote northeast province began blowing smoke and debris last week but vulcanologists said the activity was still considered normal and no alert had been issued to warn townspeople in the New Britain island trading port.
"In the past several days we have had strong southeasterly winds which have blown the ash directly into Rabaul," Ima Itikarai, director of the Rabaul Vulcanological Observatory, told Reuters by telephone.
"It is not at the stage where we would declare it critical, but we will keep a close watch on it."
Australian Broadcasting Corp radio reported that a film of ash coated the town and that airborne ash gave the town a gloomy, dusk-like atmosphere in mid-morning. Rabaul, 500 miles northeast of the PNG capital Port Moresby, is built on the caldera of Tavurvur.
It was devastated in September 1994 when Tavurvur and another nearby volcano, Vulcan, erupted. Rabaul's 30,000 residents were evacuated.
Five people died in the 1994 evacuation and during attempts to return to the town in the days following the eruption to rescue belongings from gangs of looters.
Itikarai said the current activity is similar to events in 1995 and 1996, when Tavurvur spewed debris for several hours at a time over a period of days before calming down.
In 1937, more than 500 people were killed when the two volcanoes erupted and caused tidal surges to flood the town.
Rabaul, which is surrounded by six volcanoes, was also placed on alert in 1943 and 1984.
Papua New Guinea to Australia's north lies on a belt of volcanic activity that rings the Pacific Ocean and is known as the "Ring of Fire."
Friday August 18 10:07 PM ET
By GARY SCHAEFER, Associated Press Writer
TOKYO (AP) - A newly reawakened volcano erupted Friday on a small island near Tokyo, spewing a massive column of gray-black ash five miles into the air and forcing more than 2,000 people from their homes.
It was the largest eruption from the 2,600-foot Mount Oyama, which dominates the resort island of Miyake, since the volcano ended a 17-year slumber and began stirring last month. Though no injuries or damage were reported, ash and steam rose into the sky 120 miles south of Tokyo on a day when nerves in Japan's capital were already frayed by a series of earthquakes.
Authorities on Miyake, which is home to about 4,000 people, ordered 2,162 residents to evacuate to designated shelters, including a school gymnasium, local official Yoshiko Numata said. The evacuation came just eight days after 634 people on the 22-square-mile island were forced to leave their homes temporarily following a smaller eruption.
The evacuated residents began to return home Saturday, said aid worker Norio Ooki.
Visibility was poor Saturday morning because of cloudy weather, but Oyama was believed to be still sending up white steam, Ooki said.
Friday's was the fifth and most spectacular in a series of eruptions that began July 9.
``This was on a different scale,'' said Tadashi Sakuma, who was helping to coordinate the island's relief efforts. ``There was lots of ash and some cinders too.''
Japan's Meteorological Agency said rising underground magma was probably to blame. It warned that volcanic activity on Miyake may continue.
The Meteorological Agency also urged caution because heavy rain was forecast for Saturday, raising the specter of mudslides racing down the volcano's ash-covered slopes.
Miyake is one of the largest of the Izu islands, a chain of volcanic islands off Tokyo that stretch 335 miles from north to south. Seismic activity has been intensifying in the area this week, and an observatory on Miyake had recorded almost 600 tremors since Friday afternoon, when Mount Oyama came to life.
The volcano last erupted in 1983. Five hundred homes were destroyed when lava flowed over its western flank, though timely evacuations prevented any casualties.
Elsewhere in Japan, one person was injured by a moderate tremor that rattled central Tokyo early Friday morning, and several islands near Miyake were struck by two more powerful quakes that caused landslides.
The only person injured by Friday's seismic and volcanic activity was a 62-year-old woman in Tokyo. She broke her shoulder when she was jolted off her sofa by the magnitude 4.0 earthquake that struck the city during the early morning hours.
That temblor was followed by two more powerful quakes, with preliminary magnitudes of 6.0 and 4.9, near the Izu islands. There were no reports of injuries, though the tremors triggered some mudslides.
The Meteorological Agency said the Tokyo earthquake was not related to the quakes or eruption in the Izu islands.
A fourth earthquake - also not related to the activity in the Izus - was recorded off Japan's eastern coast late Friday. The magnitude 5 tremor was barely felt in Ibaraki and other states north of Tokyo, however, as the focal point was about 12 miles underground.
Quakes of magnitude 5 are considered strong, and those of 6 or higher can cause severe damage near their epicenter.
One of the world's most seismically active countries, Japan has been jolted by a series of earthquakes and the eruptions of three different volcanoes in recent months. Tens of thousands of tremors have hit the Izu chain since the end of June. On July 1, a man was killed by a landslide following an earthquake on the island of Kozushima.
Though injuries and material damage have been light so far in the Izus, the continuing seismic and volcanic activity has hit residents where it hurts most: their wallets. Summer tourism and fishing are the main sources of income on most of the islands