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Erupting Chile Villarrica volcano forces thousands from homes

Communities around the Villarrica volcano in southern Chile have been forced to flee, after the peak's first eruption in 15 years sent ash and lava into the air. The volcano is one of South America's most active.

The 2,874-meter volcano (9,340 feet) began to erupt early Tuesday morning, forcing Chile's National Emergency Office to issue a red alert and order evacuations.

Villarrica spewed lava and ash up to three kilometers into the sky, but has now settled down.

Interior Minister Rodrigo Penailillo said more than 4,000 people were taken elsewhere as a preventative measure. Most have since returned to their homes.

The government has ordered an exclusion zone to remain until Wednesday for a 10-kilometer radius around the volcano, around 760 kilometers south of the capital Santiago.

A major lava flow is not expected, but that could change, authorities have said. There is the possibility of mudslides, as rivers rise from the melting snow that covers the sides of the mountain.

Ash from the volcano is under the flight paths used by commercial airliners, and flights have been unaffected.

"It was the most amazing thing I've ever seen," Australian tourist Travis Armstrong told news agency AP.

"I've never seen a volcano erupt and it was spewing lava and ash hundreds of meters into the air. Lightning was striking down at the volcano from the ash cloud that formed from the eruption."

President Michelle Bachelet flew over the affected areas after holding an emergency cabinet meeting.

Chile has the second largest chain of volcanoes in the world after Indonesia, including around 500 that are potentially active. Villarrica last erupted in 1984 and 2000.

jr/jil (Reuters, dpa, AP)