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U.S. base evacuated in face of volcano

The U.S. military today began evacuating thousands of Americans from Clark Air Base after a nearby volcano that had been dormant for centuries spewed rocks and hot ash. There were no reports of injuries from what the Philippine authorities described as a moderate eruption of Mount Pinatubo, which is about 10 miles west of Clark Air Base.

The eruption Sunday sent searing gases, ash and rock pouring from two craters of the 4,795-foot mountain at speeds up to 60 mph. Debris was sprayed as far as the South China Sea, 20 miles to the west.

Air Force spokesman Lt. Col. Ron Rand said volcanic activity had increased overnight at Mount Pinatubo, prompting the order to evacuate the base's 16,000 troops, dependents and civilian employees.

Personnel began leaving for the Subic Bay naval base at 6 a.m. local time today (6 p.m. EDT Sunday).

An undetermined number stayed behind to guard the facility and maintain essential services, Rand said. Marines from Subic as well as Philippine and American police were being deployed along the road to provide security.

Subic is about 50 miles southwest of Clark.

Classes were suspended today at base schools and military aircraft were moved to Cubi Point naval air station near Subic.

More than 12,000 people from three provinces were already ordered evacuated because of the volcanic activity.

In Japan meanwhile, residents in the southwest feared more avalanches from a volcano that killed at least 37 people in its first eruption last week and burned 73 homes in another outburst Saturday.

Nearly 10,000 people have left their homes at the foot of Japan's Mount Unzen, and two naval ships stood by to take residents farther away in case a new eruption sent lava, hot rocks and ash over a yet wider area.

The volcanoes now rumbling in Japan and the Philippines belong to a volcanic "Ring of Fire" circling the Pacific, but their simultaneous eruptions appear to be mere coincidence, experts said Friday.

"In my discussion with our volcanologists, we saw no connection between the two," said Jim Devine, a seismologist with the U.S. Geological Survey's office in Reston, Va.

Mount Pinatubo, about 60 miles northwest of Manila, began to show signs of activity in April for the first time in more than 600 years, and last week it belched small amounts of steam and ash.

Raymundo Punongbayan, director of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, said the eruption could be a prelude to a larger burst. "The instability of Pinatubo is very high," he said.

He said molten rock, ash and searing gas at more than 1,800 degrees were shooting from the craters in two main flows, which so far had missed settlements in the thinly populated area at the foot of the mountain.

A dense cloud of ash and smoke rose thousands of feet and was visible at least 30 miles away. Radio reporters near the mountain said the sky was "like the night."

The governor of Zambales province, Armor Deloso, said he tried to approach the volcano's slope, but turned back because of the thick ash.

"I could not breathe because the ashes were getting into my nose," he said. "It's raining ashes. The plants were all covered with ashes."

The mayor of Botolan, Tito Doble, appealed for emergency food and tents for refugees from the volcano. Botolan is about 10 miles from the crater.

Of the 12,000 people evacuated from the area, about 3,100 are primitive Aeta tribesmen who lived on the slopes of the mountain. They were moved last week.

Doble said a "handful" of people were refusing to leave isolated settlements on the slopes. "There's nothing we can do about it," he said.

The last major eruption of Mount Pinatubo was in 1380.