(dpa) – Thousands of residents of the Caribbean island of St Vincent were being evacuated on Friday after the La Soufriere volcano erupted explosively on Friday, the first time it has done so since 1979.

Around 4,500 people were brought to safety, the government said, with 2,000 sleeping in emergency accommodation.

Researchers with the National Emergency Management Organization (Nemo) said an up to 10-kilometre-high column of smoke had built up above the volcano and urged residents to immediately leave the danger zone around the mountain.

Nemo said vision was impaired because of the ash rain, which also came down at the international airport Argyle in the south of the island.

Ralph Gonsalves, prime minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, said there could be more and more severe eruptions “over the next few hours and days and maybe weeks,” his voice choking up with tears during the press conference.

Cruise ship companies Royal Caribbean International and Celebrity Cruises sent two ships to the region to bring people to safety. The governments of Jamaica offered support to the local authorities, and nearby islands like Saint Lucia, Grenada, Antigua and Dominica were preparing to take in residents.

“They will be ready certainly by Sunday, maybe Monday, to receive persons,” Gonsalves said.

Authorities had already issued an evacuation order for part of the Caribbean island after seismologists had warned that the volcano appeared set to erupt on Thursday.

Gonsalves issued the order following advice from the head of Nemo with immediate effect for all people in designated red zone areas in the island’s north, where the volcano is located, some 20 kilometres north of the capital, Kingstown.

The prime minister said earlier that, following a couple of weeks of increased seismic activity on the island, he received a phone call from Nemo on Thursday morning warning him of increased activity “of a different kind.”

The emergency organization had said on Twitter there was a “substantial prospect of disaster.”

The 1,178-high La Soufriere is the only live volcano on St Vincent and has only had five explosive eruptions since 1718, according to the centre, which says there have been several effusive or slow eruptions in the same time period, with the most recent in December 2020.

About 1,500 people died after an eruption in 1902.

Videos and images posted on Twitter by the Trinidad and Tobago-based UWI Seismic Research agency, which monitors earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis in Eastern Caribbean, showed the volcano’s dome glowing and smoke rising before sunset.

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