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31 dead as volcano erupts in Japan

Rescue workers have discovered the bodies of 31 people near the peak of an erupting volcano in Japan.

Four victims were brought down and confirmed dead, one day after Mount Ontake's big initial eruption, said Takehiko Furukoshi, a Nagano prefecture crisis-management official.

The 27 others were listed as having heart and lung failure, the customary way for Japanese authorities to describe a body until police doctors can examine it.

Officials provided no details on how they may have died.

It was the first fatal eruption in modern times at 3,067m (10,062-foot) Mount Ontake, a popular climbing destination about 210km (130 miles) west of Tokyo on the main Japanese island of Honshu. A similar eruption occurred in 1979, but no one died.

Rescue helicopters hovered over ash-covered mountain lodges and vast landscapes that looked a ghostly grey, like the surface of the moon, devoid of nearly all colour but the bright orange of rescue workers' jumpsuits.

Japanese media reported that some of the bodies were found in a lodge near the summit and that others were buried in ash up to 50cm (20 inches) deep. Police said only two of the four confirmed dead had been identified. Both were men, aged 23 and 45.

Mount Ontake erupted shortly before noon as at least 250 people were taking advantage of a beautiful autumn day to go for a hike. The blast spewed large white plumes of gas and ash high into the sky, blotted out the midday sun and blanketed the surrounding area in ash.

Hundreds were initially trapped on the slopes, though most made their way down by last night.

About 40 people who were stranded overnight came down today. Many were injured, and some had to be rescued by helicopters or carried down on stretchers.

Japan's Fire and Disaster Management Agency counted 37 injured people.

Mr Furukoshi said rescuers gave priority to helping the survivors come down, leaving behind those who were obviously without hope.

Survivors told Japanese media that they were pelted by rocks. One woman said she covered her head with a knapsack, and later found a thermos inside had been flattened.

A man said he and others went into the basement of a lodge, fearing that the rocks would penetrate the roof. n.

"Even small eruptions can cause major damage if people are around, as they get hit by rocks that come flying," Nagoya University volcanologist Koshun Yamaoka said at a news conference Sunday. "And the problem is that catching signs of such small eruptions is difficult."

Military helicopters plucked seven people off the mountainside earlier today in three helicopter trips, said Defence Ministry official Toshihiko Muraki. All were conscious and could walk, he said.

The Self-Defence Force, Japan's military, sent seven helicopters and 250 troops. Police and fire departments also joined the rescue effort.

Shinichi Shimohara, who works at a shrine at the foot of the mountain, said he was on his way up Saturday morning when he heard a loud noise that sounded like strong winds followed by "thunder" as the volcano erupted.

"For a while I heard thunder pounding a number of times," he said. "Soon after, some climbers started descending. They were all covered with ash, completely white."

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