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Village gasps for air from ashy shadow of Iceland volcano

Volcanic ash may reach France, Spain Thursday: officials
Brussels (AFP) May 22, 2011 - Ash from Iceland's most active volcano may reach north Scotland by Tuesday, sweeping through Britain to hit France and Spain Thursday if the eruption does not die down, air safety officials said.

The ash cloud was expected in northern Scotland by Tuesday, the European air safety organisation EUROCONTROL said in a statement Sunday.

"If volcanic emissions continue with the same intensity, the cloud may reach west French airspace and north Spain on Thursday ...," it added.

by Staff Writers
Kirkjubaejarklaustur, Iceland (AFP) May 22, 2011
It is pitch dark even though the sun barely sets here this time of year and the usually crisp air has become impossible to breath: a day after the Grimsvoetn volcano started erupting parts of Iceland were Sunday covered in ash.

"I went out a little this morning, and had ash in my eyes and mouth and nose. And I just went five metres (yards) to my car and back ... I was covered" in ash, said Vilhelm Tunnarsson, an Icelandic media photographer staying at hotel near the tiny village of Kirkjubaejarklaustur about 70 kilometres (43 miles) from the volcano.

Tunnarsson, who arrived just hours after Grimsvoetn began spewing smoke and ash up to 20 kilometres into the air late Saturday, told AFP he and other hotel guests had "put mattresses and towels against the doors and windows to try to block the ash."

"There is a layer of maybe 1.5 and two centimetres of ash everywhere," he said, adding it was difficult at times seeing more than 30 centimetres (11 inches) in front of him.

Rescue workers have since late Saturday been battling their way through a surreal, almost apocalyptic landscape to hand out masks to some 160 residents in Kirkjubaejarklaustur and farms scattered near the raging Grimsvoetn, which sits at the heart of Iceland's biggest glacier, Vatnajoekull.

The grayish-brown mist is at times so dense it swallows the rays of their flashlights.

"It has been really rough," lamented Einar Gudmundsson of the National Security Services, who made the 50-kilometre trip from the village of Vik to help.

"Everything was pitch black, a lot of ash was falling down, and it was incredibly difficult to travel around," he told AFP.

"We've been trying to get masks and goggles to the farms around the area, and for a while that was impossible because of the conditions," Gudmundsson said, explaining that Sunday morning "it was like the middle of the night. So dark that you couldn't see between light poles, and it took a long time to drive between them because of how slowly you had to go."

As the day wore on, visibility improved somewhat, making it possible to stroll through the streets of Kirkjubaejarklaustur which looks like a grainy, sepia-toned photograph.

All shops, restaurants and bars are shuttered and most locals have followed instructions to stay indoors.

Only journalists and the odd tourist have ventured out into the ash, the parts of their faces not covered by goggles, scarves and masks almost tan with ash.

To reach the village from the capital, nearly 400 kilometres away, drivers must negotiate their way through several road blocks before slowly delving deeper into the stifling opaqueness as most cars head the opposite direction.

There is no negotiating to go beyond Kirkjubaejarklaustur and closer to the volcano though, because, as Gudmundsson explains, "we know nothing about what comes next."

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Volcanic eruption shuts down Iceland airspace
Reykjavik (AFP) May 22, 2011
Iceland's airspace temporarily closed down early Sunday because of a violent eruption of the country's most active volcano, the airport administration Isavia said. "The status right now is that Keflavik airport, our biggest international airport, is closing. The airspace is closing," Isavia spokeswoman Hjordis Gudmundsdottir told AFP. The airspace closure, she said, "affects pretty much ... read more

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