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16 skiers hurt by flying rocks, avalanche on Japan volcano

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Japan volcano eruption triggers avalanche. Alicia Vitarelli reports during Action News Mornings on January 23, 2018. (WPVI)

At least 16 people skiing on the slopes of a volcano in central Japan were injured by flying rocks during a surprise eruption and a subsequent avalanche Tuesday, and one person later died.

Six skiers, including the man who died, were among 30 Japanese soldiers who were participating in ski training when they were buried by the avalanche about a half hour after the volcanic eruption, fire department and defense officials said.

Only the crater had been off-limits because of low-level volcanic activity before Mount Kusatsu-Shirane erupted with rocks and ash around 10 a.m. The Japan Meteorological Agency has since banned access to the mountain, and a large swath of the snow-covered volcano was covered by dark gray ash later in the day.

The agency also said the eruption and the avalanche could not be linked immediately. Snow conditions and seismic activity are some of the potential causes of an avalanche.

Five of the civilian skiers suffered serious injuries such as broken bones, but none of the injuries were life-threatening, said a regional fire department official, Hayato Tobe.

Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told reporters that the seven people trapped by the avalanche at the ski resort on the side of the 2,171-meter (7,122-foot) -high active volcano, were all rescued, but the soldiers were seriously injured.

A 49-year-old male soldier who suffered broken bones died later, said Wataru Tatsukawa, an official at the regional military training camp.

Town officials said they believe everybody has been accounted for.

The ski area's gondola was suspended after the eruption and about 80 skiers took refuge at a gondola station at the top of the ski slope, according to Tobe, the fire department official.

A military helicopter airlifted the first group of eight skiers to safer ground, according to footage shown by NHK public television. The rescued skiers, wearing helmets, were handed a bottle of tea each and escorted into a cabin.

The slopes were filled with volcanic ash and rocks and rescuers were considering whether using snowmobiles to reach the stranded skiers was safe.

An earlier report that one or two people had been injured by shattered glass when rocks struck a gondola had not been confirmed.

A rest house at the resort was hit by volcanic rocks, but the extent of damage was not known, resort official Yasuaki Morita said.

Kusatsu-Shirane last erupted in 1983.

Japan sits on the Pacific "Ring of Fire" and is prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions. An eruption of Mount Ontake in 2014 killed about 60 people. Several other Japanese volcanoes are considered unstable with small eruptions in recent years.

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Associated Press writer Ken Moritsugu contributed to this report.
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u.s. & worldvolcanoavalanchejapan
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