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An aerial photo shows molten lava as it vents from a rupture near the Eyjafjallajokull glacier in Iceland. ((Ragnar Axelsson/Associated Press))

A volcano erupted near a glacier in southern Iceland, shooting ash and molten lava into the air and forcing the evacuation Sunday of hundreds of people from a nearby village.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage from the volcano but a state of emergency was declared in communities near the Eyjafjallajokull glacier and scientists feared the eruption could trigger a larger and potentially more dangerous eruption at the nearby Katla volcano.

Saturday's eruption, which occurred just before midnight, came weeks after a series of small earthquakes.

'We had to leave all our animals behind.'—Farmer Elin Ragnarsdottir

Television footage showed lava flows along the fissure.

"This was a rather small and peaceful eruption but we are concerned that it could trigger an eruption at the nearby Katla volcano, a vicious volcano that could cause both local and global damage," said Pall Einarsson, a geophysicist at the University of Iceland's Institute of Earth Science.

Authorities evacuated 450 people in the area 160 kilometres southeast of the capital, Reykjavik, said Vidir Reynisson of the Icelandic Civil Protection Department. Evacuation centres were set up near the village of Hella.

The most immediate threat was to livestock because of the caustic gases.

"We had to leave all our animals behind," Elin Ragnarsdottir, a 47-year-old farmer, told RUV, Iceland's national broadcaster, from one of the evacuation centres. "We got a call and a text message … and we just went."

Iceland sits on a large volcanic hot spot in the mid-oceanic ridge. Volcanic eruptions are often triggered by seismic activity when the Earth's plates move and when magma from deep underground pushes its way to the surface.

Scientists have been monitoring recent activity using seismometers and global positioning instruments.

Swelling observed since start of the year

"This event has had a long prelude in earthquake activity," Einarsson told The Associated Press. "The volcano has been inflating since the beginning of the year, both rising and swelling.

"One of the possible scenarios we're looking at is that this small eruption could bring about something bigger."

Authorities initially feared the eruption occurred below the 160-square-kilometre glacier and could have triggered floods if the glacial ice melted. Scientists, however, concluded from an aerial survey Sunday that the eruption occurred near the glacier in an area where there was no ice.

"This is the best possible place for an eruption," said Tumi Gudumundsson, a geologist at the University of Iceland.

There hasn't been an eruption near the Eyjafjallajokull glacier since 1821.

The Icelandic Civil Aviation Administration ordered aircraft to stay 120 nautical miles away from the volcano area, essentially closing it off because visibility is low in some areas. Reykjavik appeared to be unaffected with clear visibility.

Flights diverted

All domestic flights were cancelled until further notice, the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service reported.

Three Icelandair flights from the U.S. — departing from Seattle, Boston and Orlando, Fla. — bound for Keflavik airport in Reykjavik were turned back to Boston, leaving about 500 people waiting, the airline said.

Flights to Stockholm, London, Amsterdam and Frankfurt were scheduled to leave Sunday morning but a flight to Oslo was cancelled and passengers were being rerouted. The airline expected further delays throughout Sunday.

First settled by Vikings in the 9th century, Iceland is known as the land of fire and ice because of its volcanoes and glaciers.

In the mid 1780s, the Laki volcano erupted, prompting scores to die of famine when livestock and crops were destroyed. During the Middle Ages, Icelanders called the Hekla volcano the "Gateway to Hell," believing that souls were dragged below. Hekla is Iceland's most active volcano.