Cyclone wreaks havoc in Tonga’s capital, parliament flattened, homes wrecked

The aftermath of cyclone Gita is seen in Nuku'alofa, Tonga, February 13, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. Twitter Virginie Dourlet/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

By John Mair

WELLINGTON (Reuters) – Tonga’s neighbors scrambled to deliver emergency relief on Tuesday after Cyclone Gita tore across the Pacific island nation in the middle of the night, flattening the parliament, tearing roofs off homes and causing widespread flooding.

There were no confirmed reports of deaths from the Category 4 storm that bought winds of around 200 km (125 miles) per hour, but there were a lot of injured people, some seriously, said Graham Kenna, an Australian government adviser at Tonga’s National Emergency Management Office.

Photos posted on social media showed a wrecked Parliament House building in the capital, as well as extensive flooding and downed power lines. Access to areas outside the capital were hindered by the storm damage and debris.

“The full extent of damage caused by Cyclone Gita is still being assessed but there is an immediate need for assistance on the ground,” NZ Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters said in a statement.

“About 5,700 people sought shelter in evacuation centres overnight, and it is expected these numbers will increase substantially tonight.”

New Zealand is donating NZ$750,000 ($545,000) in aid, and a NZ Air Force Hercules aircraft was due to fly emergency relief supplies into Tonga on Tuesday.

Australia is donating A$350,000 ($275,000) worth of emergency shelter, kitchen and hygiene kits, while the country’s foreign minister said the Australian Defence Force personnel would assist with clean-up efforts.

The cyclone was heading towards Fiji’s southern islands on Tuesday, with some forecasts reporting it intensifying towards a Category 5 storm. Fijian Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama warned residents to “heed warnings and prepare”, although the storm is expected to bypass heavily populated areas.

Gita had pummeled Samoa and American Samoa, about 900 km (560 miles) to the northeast, over the weekend, flooding the Samoan capital, Apia.

The aftermath of cyclone Gita is seen in Nuku'alofa, Tonga, February 13, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. Facebook Noazky Langi/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

The aftermath of cyclone Gita is seen in Nuku’alofa, Tonga, February 13, 2018 in this picture obtained from social media. Facebook Noazky Langi/via REUTERS THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. MANDATORY CREDIT. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES

POWER DOWN

Tonga’s clean-up began in the early hours of Tuesday as the tail of the cyclone was still over the capital, Nuku’alofa.

“Every second power pole has been knocked over and the lines are just everywhere,” Kenna said, saying it would likely be days before power could be restored. Water supplies and radio networks were also disrupted.

“They turned the power off very early before the cyclone came, knowing that the power lines would be blown down, which was a good move.”

The worst of the cyclone hit around a low tide, so there were no reports of storm surges worsening the impact of the wind and rains.

Kenna estimated around 40 percent of houses in the capital had suffered some damage, many with roofs blown off.

“A lot of the older houses, especially some of the older heritage houses, have been badly damaged or destroyed, which is very sad, they’re quite historical,” he said. “They’ve been through cyclones before, but this is the biggest cyclone this island has had for at least 60 odd years.”

($1 = 1.3776 New Zealand dollars)

($1 = 1.2718 Australian dollars)

(Reporting by John Mair in Wellington.; Additional reporting by Colin Packham in Sydney; Editing by Jane Wardell and SImon Cameron-Moore)

Heavenly show to feature trifecta of super blue moon, eclipse

The super moon appears in the sky in Cairo, Egypt, in this file photo taken October 17, 2016.

By Ian Simpson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The moon will stage a rare triple show on Wednesday when a blue super moon combines with a total lunar eclipse that will be visible from western North America to eastern Asia, U.S. astronomers say.

The overlap of a blue moon – the second full moon in a calendar month – with a lunar eclipse while the moon is at its closest approach to the earth is the first such celestial trifecta since 1982, said Noah Petro, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center outside Washington.

“Just having these three things simultaneously occur is unusual,” Petro said in a telephone interview. “A blue moon is not extremely rare but it’s a nice coincidence that it happens in conjunction with these other two.”

The moon will reach its fullest on Wednesday at 8:27 a.m. EST (1327 GMT).

A blue moon normally occurs about once every 2-1/2 years. This month’s first full moon was on Jan. 1.

The blue moon also will be a super moon, which occurs when it is at or near its closest point to the earth, or perigee. A super moon is about 14 percent brighter than usual, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said.

Wednesday’s moon will be the second closest of 2018 after the one on Jan. 1.

The lunar eclipse, which takes place when the moon passes in the earth’s shadow, will last almost 3-1/2 hours. It will start at 6:48 a.m. EST (1148 GMT) and peak at 8:29 a.m. EST (1329 GMT), NASA said.

The total eclipse will be visible from the western United States and Canada across the Pacific Ocean to most of Australia and China, as well as northern polar regions. The eclipse will give the moon a reddish color known as a blood moon.

“I’m calling it the purple eclipse because it combines the blue moon and a red eclipse,” Rich Talcott, a senior editor at Astronomy magazine, said by telephone.

Petro said the eclipse is also a scientific opportunity for researchers in Hawaii, who will study what happens to the moon’s surface when it quickly drops from 212 Fahrenheit (100 Celsius) in sunlight to minus 279 F (minus 153 C) in darkness.

The speed of cooling can show what the surface is made of, such as rock or dust, he said.

(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Bill Trott)

Malaysia to pay U.S. firm up to $70 million if it finds missing MH370

Civil Aviation Malaysia's Director General Azharuddin Abdul Rahman and Ocean Infinity's CEO Oliver Plunkett sign documents, witnessed by Malaysia's Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai, during the MH370 search operations signing ceremony between Malaysia's government and Ocean Infinity, in Putrajaya, Malaysia January 10,

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – Malaysia signed a deal on Wednesday to pay a U.S. seabed exploration firm up to $70 million if it finds the missing Malaysia Airlines aircraft MH370 within 90 days of embarking on a new search in the Southern Indian ocean.

The disappearance of the aircraft en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing in March 2014 with 239 people aboard ranks among the world’s greatest aviation mysteries.

Australia, China and Malaysia ended a fruitless A$200-million ($157 million) search of a 120,000 sq. km area in January last year, despite investigators urging the search be extended to a 25,000-square-km area further to the north.

Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai said a Houston-based private firm, Ocean Infinity, would search for MH370 in that 25,000-sq-km priority area on a “no-cure, no-fee” basis, meaning it will only get paid if it finds the plane.

“As we speak, the vessel, Seabed Constructor, is on her way to the search area, taking advantage of favorable weather conditions in the South Indian ocean,” Liow told a news conference.

The search will begin on Jan. 17, said Ocean Infinity Chief Executive Oliver Plunkett, who attended the signing event.

Ocean Infinity will be paid $20 million if the plane is found within 5,000 sq km, $30 million if it is found within 10,000 square km and $50 million if it is found within an area of 25,000 square km. Beyond that area, Ocean Infinity will receive $70 million, Liow said.

Its priority is to locate the wreckage or the flight and cockpit recorders, and present credible evidence to confirm their location within 90 days, Liow added.

“They cannot take forever or drag it on for another six months or a year.”

‘UNIQUE SOLUTION’

Ocean Infinity’s vessel carries eight autonomous underwater vehicles that will scour the seabed with scanning equipment for information to be sent back for analysis.

It has 65 crew, including two government representatives drawn from the Malaysian navy.

The ship could complete the search within three or four weeks, and cover up to 60,000 square km in 90 days, or four times faster than earlier efforts, Plunkett told Reuters.

“It was a unique problem that required a unique solution… We looked at it and said, ‘Let’s do something different than what other people would do,’ and that’s the essence of our business.”

Ocean Infinity’s core business is in the oil and gas industry, as well as subsea exploration services for tasks such as underwater cabling and seabed mapping, he said.

The company’s shareholders would bear the upfront costs of the search, Plunkett added.

Debris from MH370 could provide clues to events on board before the crash. There have been competing theories that the aircraft suffered mechanical failure or was intentionally flown off course.

Investigators believe someone may have deliberately switched off the plane’s transponder before diverting it thousands of miles out over the Indian Ocean.

At least three pieces of debris collected from sites on Indian Ocean islands and along Africa’s east coast have been confirmed as being from the missing plane.

(Reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Writing by Praveen Menon; Editing by Jamie Freed and Clarence Fernandez)

For Iraqi Christians, a bittersweet first Christmas home after Islamic State

Iraqi Christians pray during a mass on Christmas eve at Church of Saint George in Teleskof, Iraq December 24, 2017.

By Raya Jalabi

TELESKOF, Iraq (Reuters) – Inside the newly renovated Church of Saint George in the Northern Iraqi town of Teleskof, Hayat Chamoun Daoud led children dressed as Santa Claus singing “Jingle Bells” in Aramaic.

Like every other resident of Teleskof, this was Daoud’s first Christmas back home in three years, since Islamic State militants overran her town and forcibly displaced its 12,000-strong Chaldean Christian community.

“It’s so special to be back in my church, the church where I got married, the church I raised my children in,” the school headmistress said, tears in her eyes.

Faced with a choice to convert, pay a tax or die, Daoud, like many other Christians in the Nineveh Plains, chose to flee. Most sought refuge in nearby towns and cities, but many sought permanent asylum abroad. Though the militants were only in Teleskof for a few days, residents only began returning home earlier this year.

On Sunday, they celebrated their first Christmas together again at the town’s main church, which was overflowing. Hundreds of congregants, dressed in their finest, poured in to pray and receive communion from Father Salar Bodagh, who later lit the traditional bonfire in the church’s courtyard, a symbol of renewal he said.

Iraqi Christian children wait for gifts during a mass at Church of Saint George in Teleskof, Iraq December 24, 2017.

Iraqi Christian children wait for gifts during a mass at Church of Saint George in Teleskof, Iraq December 24, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

‘JOY SOAKED IN TEARS’

Despite the obvious joys of being able to celebrate openly once again, it was a bittersweet Christmas for most across the Nineveh Plains, the epicenter of Iraq’s ancient Christian communities which can trace their history in the country back two millennia.

Though Iraq declared full victory over the militants just two weeks ago after a brutal three-year war, the damage done to Christian enclaves was extensive, and left many wondering whether they could overcome their recent history.

Islamic State ravaged Christian areas, looting and burning down homes and churches, stripping them of all valuable artifacts and smashing relics.

The damage in Qaraqosh, a town 15 km (10 miles) west of Mosul also known as Hamdaniya, was extensive, particularly to the town’s ancient churches.

At the Syrian Catholic Church of the Immaculate, congregants gathered for midnight Mass on Sunday surrounded by scorched and blackened walls, still tagged with Islamic State graffiti. They also sat on donated plastic chairs – the church has not yet been able to replace the wooden pews the militants used to fuel the massive fire which engulfed the church.

Most families will require tens of thousands of dollars to repair their homes and replace their stolen goods. But most say they can overcome the material damage, unlike the forced separation of their families.

Before the militant onslaught, Qaraqosh was the largest Christian settlement in Iraq, with a population of more than 50,000. But today, only a few hundred families have returned. Entire congregations have moved overseas, such as the Syriac Orthodox congregation of the Church of Mart Shmony.

On Saturday afternoon, Father Butros Kappa, the head of Qaraqosh’s Church of the Immaculate was trying hard to summon any sense of hope to deliver his congregation during Christmas Mass.

“We’ll have a Christmas Mass like in previous years, but this year, ours will be a joy soaked in tears, because all of our people have left Iraq,” said Father Kappa.

Holding Mass in the singed and upturned ruins of his church was therefore important, he said, “to remind everyone that despite the tragedies that have befallen us, we’re still here.”

A burned church of the Immaculate Conception by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Qaraqosh, south of Mosul, Iraq December 23, 2017. Picture taken December 23, 2017.

A burned church of the Immaculate Conception by Islamic State militants is seen in the town of Qaraqosh, south of Mosul, Iraq December 23, 2017. Picture taken December 23, 2017. REUTERS/Ari Jalal

‘NO FUTURE FOR US’

In Teleskof, 30 km (20 miles) north of Mosul and itself one of the oldest continuing Christian communities in the world, some families were skipping Mass altogether upset at their forced dispersal.

“We usually celebrate with our entire family,” said Umm Rita, as she prepared the traditional Christmas Day dish of pacha (sheep’s head, trotters and stomach all slowly boiled) at her home. “But how can we be happy this year? Our brothers and sisters, even my own daughter, her husband and child I’ve never met have all moved away.”

Community leaders estimate more than 7,000 of Teleskof’s residents are now scattered across Iraq and it’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan Region, the United States, Australia, Germany, Lebanon and Jordan.

Amid ongoing tensions between the central government in Baghdad and Iraq’s Kurds after a referendum on Kurdish independence was held over Baghdad’s objections in September, Teleskof’s residents fear violence once again. “We just want to live in peace,” said Umm Rita. “We are more anxious now than when Islamic State was in our homes.”

“Our community has been gutted,” said Firas Abdelwahid, a 76-year-old former state oil employee, of the thousands who have sought permanent shelter overseas. Watching children play by the church bonfire, he felt melancholy.

“But what do we expect? The past is tragic, the present is desperate and well, there is no future for us Christians in Iraq.”

(Reporting by Raya Jalabi; Editing by Mary Milliken)

Australia police say don’t suspect terrorism after car plows into pedestrians

Australian police stand near a crashed vehicle after they arrested the driver of a vehicle that had ploughed into pedestrians at a crowded intersection near the Flinders Street train station in central Melbourne, Australia December 21, 2017.

By Melanie Burton and Byron Kaye

MELBOURNE (Reuters) – An Australian man of Afghan descent with a history of mental health issues drove a car into Christmas shoppers in the city of Melbourne on Thursday, injuring 19 people, but police said they did not believe the attack was terror-related.

In January, four people were killed and more than 20 injured when a man drove into pedestrians just a few hundred meters away from Thursday’s attack. That too was not a terror attack.

Jim Stoupas, the owner of a donut shop at the scene, told Reuters the vehicle was traveling up to 100 kph (62 mph) when it drove into the intersection packed with people, hitting one person after another.

“All you could hear was just ‘bang bang bang bang bang’ and screams,” Stoupas said in a telephone interview, adding the car came to rest by a tram stop.

Police said they detained the 32-year-old driver, an Australian of Afghan descent with a history of assault, drug use and mental health issues.

“At this time, we don’t have any evidence or intelligence to indicate a connection with terrorism,” said the acting chief commissioner of Victoria State, Shane Patton.

Four of the injured were in critical condition, including a pre-school aged boy who suffered a head injury.

Police also detained a 24-year-old man at the scene who was filming the incident and had a bag with knifes.

Patton said it was “quite probable” the 24-year-old was not involved.

The men had not been charged and their names have not been released by police.

The attack took place on Flinders Street, a major road that runs alongside the Yarra River, in the central business district of Australia’s second-biggest city.

Melbourne has installed about 140 concrete bollards in the city center to stop vehicle attacks by militants similar to recent attacks in Europe and the United States.

“We’ve seen an horrific act, an evil act, an act of cowardice perpetrated against innocent bystanders,” said the state premier, Daniel Andrews.

Sydney, Australia’s biggest city, has also installed concrete barricades in main pedestrian thoroughfares.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims and the emergency health workers who are treating them,” Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in a post on his official Twitter account.

Australia has been on a “high” national threat level since 2015, citing the likelihood of attacks by Australians radicalized in Iraq and Syria.

Two hostages were killed during a 17-hour siege by a “lone wolf” gunman, inspired by Islamic State militants, in a cafe in Sydney in December 2014.

 

(Reporting by Melanie Burton in MELBOURNE and Byron Kaye in SYDNEY; additional reporting by Sonali Paul and Paulina Duran; writing by Jonathan Barrett; Editing by Nick Macfie, Robert Birsel)

Papua New Guinea threatens to forcibly remove asylum seekers

Workers dismantle structures in Lombrum detention camp on Manus island, Papua New Guinea, November 13, 2017. Behrouz

By Colin Packham

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Papua New Guinea Immigration Minister Petrus Thomas said authorities would take steps on Monday to forcibly remove around 450 men who remain in an abandoned Australian detention center without food or running water.

Hundreds of men have barricaded themselves into the Manus Island center for more than 13 days without regular food or water supplies, defying attempts by Australia and Papua New Guinea to close the facility, saying they fear for their safety if removed to transit centers.

“We will be taking steps with relevant authorities to move the residents based on serious exposure to health risk for the food of everyone that is remaining,” Thomas said in a statement issued late on Sunday.

As of 5.00 p.m. (0700 GMT) Monday, no moves had been made by the government to remove the men, several asylum seekers inside the center told Reuters via email.

One of the asylum seekers barricaded inside the center said on Monday that water supplies have been destroyed after Papua New Guinea workers entered the site and drained rainwater collected in tanks and garbage bins.

“Immigration came and bored holes in the water tanks where we had been collecting rain water,” he said, asking to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals from Papua New Guinea authorities. “They also demolished the well we built.”

Running water and electricity to the center were disconnected two weeks ago after Australian security withdrew and the camp closed on Oct. 31. The center had been declared illegal by a Papua New Guinea Court.

The United Nations has warned of a “looming humanitarian crisis” among the asylum seekers, who are drawn largely from Afghanistan, Iran, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Syria.

Australia has used the center, and a camp on the tiny Pacific island of Nauru, to detain asylum seekers who try to reach its shores by boat. It says boat arrivals will never enter Australia, even if found to be refugees, as that would encourage people smugglers in Asia.

Under a refugee swap deal, the United States has agreed to accept potentially up to 1,250 asylum seekers from Manus and Nauru, in return for Australia taking refugees from Central America. The United States has so far only accepted 54 refugees.

New Zealand has offered to resettle 150 asylum seekers, but Australia has rejected the offer.

 

 

 

(Reporting by Colin Packham; Editing by Jane Wardell, Peter Cooney and Michael Perry)

 

Trump meets Japan, Australia leaders over trade, North Korea threat

U.S. President Donald Trump holds a trilateral meeting with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Australia's Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull alongside the ASEAN Summit in Manila, Philippines November 13, 2017.

MANILA (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump raised North Korea’s missile tests during talks on Monday with the prime ministers of Japan and Australia, and said “a lot” of progress had been made in negotiations on trade.

On the sidelines of a summit of East and Southeast Asian leaders in Manila, Trump met with Japan’s Shinzo Abe and Australia’s Malcolm Turnbull, and said discussions at the meeting would include tensions on the Korean Peninsula and trade.

In brief remarks prior to news media being ushered out of the meeting, Turnbull said North Korea’s “recklessness” needed to be stopped, while Abe said the most immediate challenge was to ensure regional peace and stability.

Following the meeting, the White House said “the three leaders reaffirmed their commitment to maintaining maximum pressure on North Korea in the effort to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula.”

“They also discussed expanded security cooperation for enhanced deterrence and defense against North Korean aggression,” the White House said in a statement.

The three men also discussed the need for “free and open” trade in the Indo-Pacific region and “the need to pursue fair and reciprocal trade,” the White House added.

Trump, who campaigned heavily on U.S. trade issues, made pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Asian trade deal one of his first acts in office. His administration has instead pledged to reach bilateral pacts with individual nations.

Countries remaining in the pact have said the deal is advancing without the United States.

 

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Writing by Martin Petty and Susan HeaveyEditing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Jonathan Oatis)

 

Southeast Asian ministers urge North Korea to rein in weapons programs

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un looks on during a visit to the Chemical Material Institute of the Academy of Defense Science in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) in Pyongyang on August 23, 2017. KCNA/via REUTERS

By Manuel Mogato

CLARK FREEPORT ZONE, Philippines (Reuters) – Southeast Asian defense ministers on Monday expressed “grave concern” over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and urged the reclusive country to meet its international obligations and resume communications.

North Korea is working to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of striking the U.S. mainland and has ignored all calls, even from its lone major ally, China, to rein in its weapons programs which it conducts in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Defense ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), in a joint statement, underscored the “need to maintain peace and stability in the region” and called “for the exercise of self-restraint and the resumption of dialogue to de-escalate tensions in the Korean peninsula”.

They are due to meet with their counterparts from the United States, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, Russia and New Zealand on Tuesday when North Korea, the disputed South China Sea and terrorism are expected to top the agenda.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said he will talk with Asian allies about North Korea and the crisis caused by its “reckless” provocations.

Mattis’s trip to Asia, which will also include stops in Thailand and South Korea, comes just weeks before Donald Trump’s first visit to Asia as U.S. president.

In the same statement, the ministers reiterated the importance of “safety and freedom of navigation in and over-flight above the South China Sea” and called for “self restraint in the conduct of activities”.

They also vowed to work together to combat terrorism as they condemned the attack by the Maute militant group in the southern Philippine city of Marawi.

The Philippines on Monday announced the end of five months of military operations in Marawi after a fierce and unfamiliar urban war that marked the country’s biggest security crisis in years.

 

 

 

(Writing by Karen Lema; Editing by Nick Macfie)

 

Joint Strike Fighter plans stolen in Australia cyber attack

Two Lockheed Martin Corp F-35 stealth fighter jets fly to the Avalon Airshow in Victoria, Australia, March 3, 2017. Australian Defence Force/Handout via REUTERS

By Tom Westbrook

SYDNEY (Reuters) – A hacker stole non-classified information about Australia’s Joint Strike Fighter program and other military hardware last year after breaching the network of a defense contractor, the defense industry minister said on Thursday.

About 30 gigabytes of data was stolen in the cyber attack, including details of the Joint Strike Fighter warplane and P-8 Poseidon surveillance plane, according to a presentation on the hack by a government official.

“Fortunately the data that has been taken is commercial data, not military data … it’s not classified information,” Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne told Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) Radio.

“I don’t know who did it.”

In a presentation to a conference in Sydney, an official from the Australian Signals Directorate (ASD) intelligence agency said technical information on smart bombs, the Joint Strike Fighter, the Poseidon maritime patrol aircraft and several naval vessels was stolen.

“The compromise was extensive and extreme,” said the official, Mitchell Clarke, in an audio recording made by a ZDNet journalist and broadcast by the ABC.

Clarke said the attacker accessed the small contractor’s systems for five months in 2016, and the “methodical, slow and deliberate,” choice of target suggested a nation-state actor could be behind the raid.

Australia has agreed to buy 72 Lockheed Martin Corp Joint Strike Fighter planes.

A spokesman for the Australian Cyber Security Centre (ACSC), a government agency, said the government would not release further details about the cyber attack.

The ACSC said in a report on Monday that it responded to 734 cyber attacks on “systems of national interest” for the year ended June 30, and the defense industry was a major target.

The attack on the defense contractor was carried out by a “malicious cyber adversary”, it said.

In 2016 the agency said it responded to 1,095 cyber attacks over an 18-month period, including an intrusion from a foreign intelligence service on the weather bureau.

(Reporting by Tom Westbrook; Editing by Stephen Coates)

Bali’s rumbling volcano spurs travel warnings from Australia, Singapore

The sun sets behind Mount Agung, a volcano on the highest alert level, from Amed on the resort island of Bali, Indonesia September 25, 2017.

By Nyimas Laula

Karangasem, INDONESIA (Reuters) – Fears that a volcano could erupt imminently on the holiday island of Bali prompted several countries to issue travel warnings, while Indonesian authorities raced to evacuate tens of thousands of people living in the “danger zone”.

Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, the United States and the U.K. issued advisories on Monday and at the weekend warning that increased volcanic activity at Mount Agung in eastern Bali could disrupt flights at one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations.

“Given the possible eruption of Mount Agung, Singaporeans should defer non-essential travel to the affected areas at this juncture,” the foreign ministry said in an online statement.

Bali’s international airport was operating normally on Monday, as were tourist spots across the island.

Indonesian authorities have imposed a 12-km (7.5 miles)exclusion zone around the crater.

The National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) said on Monday that around 62,000 people lived within the “danger zone” around the volcano and that they all needed to evacuate, though so far only 50,00 had moved to the temporary shelters provided in neighboring villages.

“There are some who are staying behind because the volcano hasn’t erupted yet or because of religious beliefs,” said BNPB spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho.

“Our staff are combing the area and urging everyone to evacuate,” he said, speaking at a news conference in the Indonesian capital Jakarta.

Nugroho said Mount Agung has entered a “critical phase”, meaning magma has risen closer to the surface, as indicated by hundreds of shallow volcanic tremors that have rattled the area in recent days.

Evacuees are being housed in makeshift shelters like town halls and school gyms. Host communities were providing food and water, while the central and local governments were providing tents, blankets and other relief.

Officials have urged the public to remain calm amid false reports and videos circulating online of an eruption.

Indonesia, which sits on the so-called Pacific Ring of Fire, has nearly 130 active volcanoes, more than any other country. Many Indonesians live near volcanoes because lava flows can make the surrounding soil and land fertile for farming.

 

(Additional reporting by Jessica Damiana and Kanupriya Kapoor in JAKARTA; Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)