TOKYO (AFP) - Seven more bodies have been found by rescuers combing the peak of a Japanese volcano that erupted at the weekend, officials said on Wednesday, taking the death toll to at least 43.
The seven are in addition to the 36 already known to have died when Mount Ontake burst to life during the busy hiking season, but may not be the last, with reports of more bodies lying near the peak.
"Rescuers found seven more people in cardiac arrest near the mountain top, and are now carrying them down," an official in Otaki village, where one mountain trail begins, told AFP.
Only doctors can declare someone officially dead, so first responders typically report that someone's heart has stopped and they are not breathing. The find comes after media reports suggested as many as 20 people remain unaccounted for, with an area of the volcano still out of bounds to rescuers as it continues to billow toxic gas and steam.
Some of the around 1,000 troops, police and firefighters combing the volcano succeeded in bringing down 14 of the bodies that were discovered on Sunday, with 10 more still there.
An official at Nagano prefecture's crisis management office said helicopters had been used to ferry the dead from the mountain, whose pock-marked lunarscape bears witness to the huge volume of ask and rocks that were flung from the volcano.
'People still missing'
"We believe there are more people still missing, but we don't know how many they are," he added. Broadcaster NHK said rescuers had seen more bodies that they had not yet been able to go to. Hiking is an incredibly popular pastime in Japan, with mountain trails promoted by tourism officials who ask walkers to sign in when they begin their trek and sign out again when they finish.
But a local tourism association told the Asahi Shimbun "usually only 10 to 20 per cent of hikers register their names with authorities before entering the mountains in high season".
The report said 327 hikers had registered to be on Mount Ontake at the time of the eruption. Rescuers are hoping that many of those that cannot be contacted simply forgot to let mountain managers know they were safe.
Nagano Prefecture has posted a notice on its website calling for information on hikers on the list. However, there exists the grisly possibility that many more perished.
"We don't know if there are people buried deep down under accumulated ash," a senior police official told the Asahi.
The local fire department said 71 people are missing, it said, while the Nagano prefectural police has received hundreds of reports of people whose whereabouts are unknown, a police spokesman told AFP.
Authorities cautioned that some of these reports would likely have nothing to do with the disaster, which happened without warning during a busy weekend. Hundreds of people were on the slopes of the volcano as rocks, ash and smoke poured from the fractured crater.
Many made it down safely, but dozens were trapped on the peak. Autopsies carried out on the first 12 people whose bodies were retrieved showed they all died from injuries caused by rocks hurled high into the air by the eruption.
Aerial footage showed a sticky blanket of ash smothering the upper slopes where craters that appeared to be up to a metre across revealed where some of the projectiles had landed.
The roof of one of the huts near the caldera, where hikers are believed to have sought shelter, had been punctured by rocks as they plunged back to earth. Volcanic tremors have been detected constantly since Saturday's eruption, with underground water boiling into steam and breaking or moving rocks, a vulcanologist at the meteorological agency said.
The agency warned on Wednesday that the eruption was still under way, and noted that smoke had been seen issuing from the volcano as of 9.00 am local time.