Guatemala's Fuego volcano has erupted, spewing smoke and ash 3km into the sky and forcing the evacuation of thousands of people as lava oozed down its slopes, local emergency services said.
The volcano, 40km southwest of the capital Guatemala City, erupted in the early afternoon, belching a cloud of ash above the crater, Guatemala's emergency agency CONRED said in a statement on Thursday.
Roughly 11,000 people have been evacuated and 8,000 more were awaiting transfer to shelters, said Sergio Cabanas, CONRED's director of emergency response. Up to 10,000 others could be moved to safety depending on wind conditions and ash emissions, he added.
"For the moment, the strength (of the eruption) has not calmed," Cabanas said.
Two lava flows, about 600 meters long, were heading down the sides of the volcano accompanied by pyroclastic flows of hot rock and ash, CONRED said.
"The greater danger right now is the ash," Cabanas said. If the lava flows continue to spread, he said, it would hinder the evacuation process.
Clouds of ash
Speaking at a press conference during a state visit to Costa Rica, Otto Perez Molina, the Guatemalan President, have said the eruption could affect people as far away as Guatemala City.
"It is a shame, but this is a fact of life in our country, so we will do the best we can to avoid people being harmed," he said.
The airport remains open but airport officials shut down the air approach route between Guatemala City's La Aurora airport and Tapachula International Airport in Chiapas, Mexico.
"For the moment, we are urging caution because of the changing winds near the volcano, mainly from the east and southeast," civil aviation spokeswoman Oddra Lacs said.
Witnesses said the explosion darkened skies and prompted the closure of schools and universities.
"It is almost impossible to see the volcano because lots of ash is falling," said Ricardo Castillo, a 23-year-old Guatemalan English teacher at the Del Valle University in Santa Lucia, about 25km from the base of the volcano.
"There are lots of clouds and the sky is very dark. Classes have been canceled and the students are very scared, hearing the volcano and seeing the ash cloud."
Al Jazeera's David Mercer, reporting from Solola in western Guatemala, said the Fuego volcano last erupted in May.
"A 2010 eruption at Pacaya, a volcano close to the Fuega, covered Guatemala City with a layer of ash, closing the airport and forcing the evacuation of hundreds of people.
"The wind is currently blowing the ash south, which means that the capital remains spared from the clouds for now."