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Skiers injured by eruption

Twelve people, including eight soldiers, skiing on the slopes of a volcano near a famous hot spring resort in central Japan were injured Tuesday by flying rocks during a sudden eruption, officials said. One soldier later died.

The eruption quickly darkened the ski slope at Mount Kusatsu-Shirane with black ash, as volcanic rocks rained down on gondolas and people skiing down the slopes, sending them desperately seeking shelter at a mountaintop station.

The eight soldiers were in a group of 30 who were undergoing ski training and were close to the mountain's peak when they were hit by the volcanic rocks, defence officials said.

The officials had originally said the injuries were caused by an avalanche, but later corrected that account.

One of the soldiers, who was slightly injured, said he took refuge in a forest by the ski slope after seeing black smoke and volcanic rocks shooting into the air. When visibility improved about 10 minutes later, he found several fellow soldiers fallen to the ground, Kyodo News reported.

The four civilian skiers did not have life-threatening injuries, Gunma prefectural disaster officials said.

Only the crater had been off-limits because of low-level volcanic activity before Mount Kusatsu-Shirane erupted around 10 a.m. The Japan Meteorological Agency has since banned access to the mountain.

Town officials said everyone on the mountain had been accounted for, and all of about 80 skiers who took refuge at a gondola station at the top of the ski slope were brought down to the foot of the mountain, some by a military helicopter, others by snowmobiles. The rescue operation was finished by the evening.

NHK public television showed the first group of rescued skiers, wearing helmets, being handed a bottle of tea each and escorted into a cabin.



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