A house burns due to lava from the eruption of a volcano in Spain. | BORJA SUAREZ


The Canary Islands' first volcanic eruption in 50 years has forced the evacuation of about 5,000 people, including about 500 tourists, officials said on Monday, adding they were hopeful they would not need to evacuate more people.

The volcano erupted on Sunday, shooting lava hundreds of metres into the air, engulfing houses and forests and sending molten rock towards the Atlantic Ocean over a sparsely populated area of La Palma, the most northwestern island in the Canaries archipelago.
No fatalities have been reported but the volcano was still active on Monday. A Reuters reporter saw heavy smoke coming from the volcano and houses burning.

"The lava is moving towards the coast and the damage will be material. According to experts there are about 17-20 million cubic metres of lava," regional president Angel Victor Torres told Cadena Ser.

The lava flow has destroyed about 100 houses so far, Mariano Hernandez, president of La Palma's council, told Cadena Ser radio.

About 20 houses were engulfed in the village of El Paso along with sections of roads, Mayor Sergio Rodriguez told TVE radio station, adding the lava was spreading through neighbouring villages, putting hundreds of houses at risk.

Volcanologist Nemesio Perez said there were unlikely to be fatalities as long as no-one behaved recklessly.

La Palma had been on high alert for an eruption after more than 22,000 tremors were reported in the space of a week in Cumbre Vieja, which belongs to a chain of volcanoes that last had a major eruption in 1971 and is one of the most active volcanic regions in the Canaries.

One man was killed in 1971 as he took photographs near the lava flows. No property was damaged.

A submarine eruption occurred about 10 years ago close to the islands but caused little damage.

Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez arrived in La Palma on Sunday for talks with the islands' government on managing the eruption. "We have all the resources and all the troops, citizens can rest easy," he said. He will visit affected areas later in the day.

A spokesperson for the regional emergency services said it was unclear what path the lava would take to reach the ocean and that authorities had evacuated people with mobility issues from several coastal towns, including the popular beach resort of Puerto Naos.

Spain's civil air authority Enaire said on Monday that the airspace above the Canary Islands was open despite a volcanic eruption, while only a few flights were cancelled by a local airline.

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The archipelago's local airline Binter cancelled four flights on Monday, but it scheduled other flights for later in the day.

The airline, which had released footage of the smoke and ash plume on Sunday afternoon, said the cancellations were a consequence of the eruption.

It said on its Twitter account that flights to and from La Gomera would resume later on Monday, though it warned of possible delays. Its call centre was offering tickets for flights to La Palma and La Gomera for the afternoon.

Enaire has maintained the airspace open and said there were no restrictions on travelling to La Gomera or La Palma early on Monday.

"There is no problem of visibility", an Enaire source added, saying it was up to airlines to decide if they wanted to change their plans.

"The island is open," Maroto told Canal Sur radio, calling the eruption "a wonderful show".

"There are no restrictions on going to the island ... on the contrary, we're passing on the information so tourists know they can travel to the island and enjoy something unusual, see it for themselves," she said.

Maroto's remarks drew immediate criticism from Teodoro Garcia Egea, secretary general of the opposition People's Party, who posted an article on Twitter quoting the minister and asked: "Can someone confirm the minister said that while hundreds of people are losing everything they have?"

About 360 tourists were evacuated from a resort in La Palma following the eruption and taken to the nearby island of Tenerife by boat on Monday, a spokesperson for ferry operator Fred Olsen said.

Another 180 tourists could be evacuated from La Palma later in the day, the spokesperson added.

Lava flowing from a volcano is set to reach the sea at around 8 p.m. local time, regional leader Angel Victor Torres told a news conference on Monday.

"It is still active and will continue to be active for the next few days," he told a news conference after a meeting with regional leaders, volcano experts and civil defence authorities.