SANAA, Oct 1 (Reuters) At least eight Yemeni soldiers were killed in a volcanic eruption on an island off the country's Red Sea Coast, the government said today.
The volcano erupted late on Sunday, spewing lava hundreds of metres into the air. Officials said earlier nine soldiers were missing.
''At least eight are regarded as dead now,'' a government official told Reuters.
The eruption occurred on Jabal al-Tair, an island about 130 km from Yemen.
Yemen has had a military base on the island since its 1996 conflict with Eritrea over the nearby islands of Hanish and Jabal Zuqar.
Al-Arabiya television quoted witnesses as saying the island was engulfed in fire then disappeared.
''At least 49 soldiers were evacuated from the island,'' the television said, according to the witnesses. Yemeni officials were not available to confirm the report.
A Defence Ministry official said the western part of the island had ''collapsed'' following the eruption. He said naval ships were searching the surrounding waters for nine missing Yemeni soldiers who were stationed on the island.
Yemen's Oil Minister Khaled Mahfoudh Bahah said several earthquakes felt yesterday had triggered the eruption.
''Three earthquakes struck the island around 1657 IST yesterday, and were ranging between 4.3 and 4 on the Richter scale,'' Jamal al-Shalaan, head of the Yemeni Earthquake Centre told the state news agency Saba.
President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who flew to nearby Hudaidah port late yesterday to observe the situation, told the Yemeni navy to send rescue teams, Saba reported.
The Canadian frigate Toronto was conducting a search and rescue operation at the request of the Yemeni coast guard. The NATO fleet was sailing north towards the Suez Canal at the time of the eruption, the Canadian navy said in a statement.
It said it was trying to locate nine people believed to be at sea in the area.
Navy spokesman Ken Allan told the Canadian Press news agency that lava was spewing hundreds of metres into the air, with volcanic ash also rising 300 metres.
In an e-mail from on board the ship, he said the entire three-km-long island was aglow with lava and pouring into the sea.
A Yemeni geologist said the volcano had previously erupted in the 19th and 18th centuries, Saba said.
REUTERS SKB AS1633