Colombia: authorities lower threat level for volcano, but risks persist

Authorities lowered the threat level for a volcano in southwestern Colombia on Friday, a day after an eruption covered a nearby city in ash and forced the evacuation of thousands of people.

The 4,276-meter (14,110-foot) Galeras volcano appeared to be settling down, but the risk of further eruptions remained, said Julian Villaruel of Colombia's Volcanology Institute.

"It seems the activity is stabilizing," he said.

Several thousand families living in the volcano's shadow who defied an earlier preventive evacuation order streamed out of the region after the eruption at dawn Thursday. Officials were providing temporary shelter at a nearby tent camp and deployed police to abandoned villages to prevent looting.

But a handful of residents in Genoy, a small farming village, refused to evacuate, saying a statue of the Virgin Mary they erected near the crater would protect the village.

"Proof of the Virgin Mary's support for us is that the ash fell on Pasto and not Genoy," said villager Dolores Triana.

Pasto, the state capital located 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the volcano, was blanketed by a layer of ash after the Galeras blew, forcing residents to don goggles and protective face masks.

President Alvaro Uribe flew to Pasto on Friday to take a firsthand look at the situation and comfort displaced villagers, his office said.

"The government wants to help with goodwill first by providing temporary accommodation and second by acquiring land so that they (the farmers) can relocate elsewhere," Uribe told reporters late Thursday.

Uribe has pledged US$14 million (Ђ11.9 million) next year to buy land from villagers in high-risk areas, giving them the means to move beyond the volcano's reach.

The Galeras has a long history of activity. More than 100 minor tremors were felt during the volcano's last major eruption, in April 2002, though no damage or injury was reported. A 1993 eruption killed nine people, including five scientists from around the globe who had descended into the crater to sample gases at the moment it blew, A.P. reports. P.T.

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