People around Mexico's active volcano ignore government calls to leave

SANTIAGO XALINTIZTLA, Mexico - As Mexico's Popocatepetl volcano rumbled, residents in nearby towns largely ignored calls to evacuate Saturday, strolling in open plazas to watch the cone spout plumes of smoke and ash.

Government officials rang church bells and drove through the streets to alert residents after 14,000 people in 11 towns at the volcano's base were asked to leave the area late Friday, the first evacuation since 1994.

The volcano, which has had one of its most active weeks in two years, continued to spew ash, smoke and vapor Saturday. Officials compared the mountain to a blocked pressure cooker, saying they feared unprecedented seismic activity inside the cone could be signs of a pending eruption.

The 17,886-foot volcano, which has been shooting out ash and rock intermittently since December 1994, is visible from Mexico City, the largest metropolis in the Americas.

Yet a full-blown eruption at the volcano, 40 miles southeast of Mexico City, would likely only dust the metropolitan area's 20 million residents with ash. At higher risk are the small communities dotting the volcano's base - like Santiago Xalintiztla, which could be directly in the path of lava or debris if an eruption struck.

On Saturday, however, residents seemed unconcerned, watching curiously as officials drove through the streets, calling for them to evacuate ''for your own good, and for the good of your families.'' The volcano's activity had dropped off noticeably from Friday.

Soldiers peered from the second-floor balcony of the town hall while drums and trumpets from wedding celebrations echoed across the city plaza.

Dressed in a white sport coat and jeans, Rosario Aquino, 33, waited in a church courtyard for a wedding to begin, accustomed to the activity of the volcano locally known as ''Popo.''

''It's been burning for six years now, yes,'' he said. ''But we are destined to live with the volcano.''

Watching the volcano and talking with friends, Jonathan Agustin, 35, said he parked his car on the edge of town, in case he needs to leave. The volcano was quieter Saturday, he said, unlike the day before when it sounded like ''a truck dumping rocks.''

Several hundred buses were sent to shuttle people from communities within 8 miles of the volcano to safe havens, but only a small minority boarded them.

Job Analco, 40, fled his small town near Santiago Xalintiztla to stay at a shelter with 680 other people. He admitted he was among a few. ''Many people aren't taking it seriously,'' he said of the evacuation.

Many didn't want to leave their homes and livestock, fearing their belongings might be stolen and their animals left hungry.

The last evacuation occurred in December 1994, shortly after the volcano became active again after lying dormant since 1927. It's been 800 years since the volcano's last catastrophic eruption.

Aurelio Fernandez Fuentes, director of the University Disaster Center in the city of Puebla, said the volcano's chambers on Saturday appeared to be blocked, causing pressure to build up inside its cone. The pressure could trigger an explosion that would throw rocks and other debris.

Similar blockages occurred in April 1996, June 1997 and December 1998, prompting small outbursts.

Earthquake detectors on Friday recorded intense seismic activity never seen before inside the volcano, indicating a possible movement of magna. The tremors have shaken some towns nearby.

On Thursday, the volcano threw ash over a 50-mile radius and spat incandescent fragments that rolled down its slopes. On Tuesday, it erupted 200 times, a record number for a single day. Residents in villages surrounding the volcano have been walking the streets with medical masks over their mouths to avoid inhaling the ash.


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