updated 10/1/2005 8:52:12 PM ET 2005-10-02T00:52:12

A volcano in western El Salvador erupted on Saturday, sending a column of ash 50,000 feet into the air and killing two farmers buried by chunks of earth and boiling water that tumbled down the slopes.

Authorities ordered the evacuation of three communities in the shadow of the Ilamatepec volcano, which towers near Santa Ana, the country’s second largest city, 40 miles from San Salvador, the capital.

“The volcano has entered an eruptive phase that consists of ashes and gases,” Interior Secretary Rene Figueroa said.

It was unclear how many people had been ordered to leave their homes. Figueroa said as many as 10,000 residents live close to the volcano, but that most areas were not evacuated.

Emergency response officials said two farmers died and two other residents of the coffee-growing town of Palo Campana were missing.

The ground was smoldering when soldiers arrived to assist in the evacuations. Falling ash had destroyed coffee crops and damaged trees in surrounding forests.

Small bodies of water were steaming and bubbling from the heat and ash covered the ground as far as the eye could see. Problems with landslides worsened as afternoon rains pelted the area.

“We have had an eruption of moderate magnitude,” President Tony Saca said during a visit to the country’s national emergency response headquarters. But he added that “there was no lava.”

“Everyone is helping, first to save lives and get people out, because we don’t know what is going to happen,” he said.

Figueroa said air force flights over Ilamatepec “confirmed that it emitted a column of ash that reached 50,000 feet high.”

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