Tourists ignore Philippine volcano's danger zone: officials

LEGASPI, Dec 28 (AFP) - Philippine troops have been ordered to stop foreigners from getting close to the volatile Mayon volcano after two tourists ventured inside the "danger zone," authorities said Monday.

Extra troops have been deployed at checkpoints blocking access to Mayon after the tourists and their local guides were seen riding all-terrain vehicles near its foothills on Sunday.

"They looked Chinese. They must have passed through other areas, not the roads where the checkpoints are, to get inside," Captain Razaleigh Bansawan, spokesman of a military task force securing the danger zone, told AFP.

"They wanted to see the lava column."

Mayon has been spewing lava and sending spectacular fountains of ash into the sky for about two weeks, and authorities have warned that a major eruption could occur any day.

Nearly 50,000 villagers living in Mayon's foothills have already been evacuated to areas outside the so-called "danger zone," which has a radius of eight kilometres (five mile).

But villagers wanting to tend to their farms, as well as adventurous tourists, have caused headaches for authorities by going into zone.

Bansawan expressed frustration at having to waste time dealing with the two foreign tourists on Sunday, saying the military had to chase them out of the zone although the pair was not caught.

Joey Salceda, governor of Albay province where Mayon is located, has ordered a crackdown on local tour guides who take the foreigners into the danger zone, according to Bansawan.

Local emergency management official Jukes Nunez said authorities had noticed tourists visiting Legaspi city near Mayon to watch the lava oozing down the volcano's slopes, which is particularly spectacular at night.

But he stressed most tourists did their viewing from designated safe areas.

Meanwhile, Mayon, located about 330 kilometres (200 miles) southeast of Manila, continued to give menacing signals that a major eruption was imminent.

Chief government volcanologist Renato Solidum said ash emissions had shot about one kilometre into the sky repeatedly on Monday.

The government's volcanology institute has kept its alert level for Mayon at four since December 20, meaning a major eruption could occur within days.

The 2,460-metre (8,070-foot) volcano, which is famed for its near-perfect cone, has erupted 48 times in recorded history. In 1814, more than 1,200 people were killed as lava buried the town of Cagsawa.

MySinchew 2009.12.28