Vanuatu trying to evacuate entire island ahead of volcano eruption

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A Dunkirk-like rescue of thousands of people threatened by an erupting volcano was under way in the South Pacific yesterday.

Vanuatu ordered the full evacuation of the island after the nation's largest volcano, known as Manaro Voui, began emitting volcanic gas last weekend.

A flotilla of small boats, barges and supply ships have ferried people off Ambae to the closest islands, Maewo, Pentecost and Espiritu Santo over the past few days.

The head of the province's disaster committee, Manuel Ure, said about 20 flights were scheduled to get people out today, carrying people to neighbouring islands. But he said government ministers would need to meet and agree to lift the evacuation order before the exodus would be stopped or reversed. She said they would have to leave behind their animals, including a pig and three cows, as well as books and belongings.

"I'm anxious about walking away from the village and the animals and everything in our homes, because we are just leaving them behind", she said. She said officials had told her she needed to be prepared to leave for two or three weeks.

HMAS Choules departed Australia this morning, to help the Government of Vanuatu evacuate the 11,000 residents on Ambae Island.

Vanuatu, a sprawling cluster of more than 80 islands and 260,000 people, is on the geologically active Pacific Ring of Fire and its Tana island active volcano is a major tourist attraction.

He said the greatest issue for residents is access to safe drinking water.

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He said residents will be moved onto nearby islands.

"Their main fear is they won't be able to return home", he said.

Vanuatu's government says the evacuation will be completed by Friday and has set aside 200 million vatu ($1.9 million) for the effort.

"There were big sacks of rice and boxes of tinned fish", he said.

An Australian naval ship is expected to arrive on Wednesday, while New Zealand has sent a Hercules C-130 to airlift supplies into the area.

Red Cross emergency officer Andrew McKie was living in Vanuatu during the 1995 eruptions and said volcanic activity on Ambae was nothing new.

People on the east would be split between other islands.

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