SYDNEY (REUTERS) - Australia dispatched a naval vessel to Vanuatu on Saturday (Sept 30) to help the South Pacific nation evacuate all 11,000 inhabitants from the northern island of Ambae as an erupting volcano threatens to shower down burning ash and acid rain.
Vanuatu ordered the full evacuation of the island after the nation's largest volcano, known as Manaro Voui, began emitting volcanic gas last weekend.
Vanuatu has maintained its danger rating at threat Level Four - the second highest - as a flotilla of ships including ferries and commercial vessels has begun moving the population to the nearby islands of Maewo, Pentecost and Santo.
More than 6,000 people have already gone to emergency shelters on the South Pacific island.
The Australian amphibious landing ship HMAS Choules left for Vanuatu on Saturday morning with specialists and supplies, the government said in a statement.
Vanuatu called for international help through the FRANZ partnership, which groups France, Australia and New Zealand, and aims to evacuate the island by Oct 6.
The volcano is crowned by crater lakes which make it more dangerous, said vulcanologist Christopher Firth of Australia's Macquarie University.
One of the lakes is directly above the eruption, increasing its explosive potential and posing the threat of a deadly lahar: a boiling mud flow down the side of the mountain, Firth said.
Australia has committed A$250,000 (S$266,000) for supplies including food, water, shelter and hygiene kits, and will assist in aerial surveillance, the statement said.
New Zealand has also given aid including water, sanitation and hygiene kits and has made NZ$100,000 (S$98,000) available for the response, Foreign Affairs Minister Gerry Brownlee said on Saturday.
Vanuatu, a sprawling cluster of more than 80 islands and 260,000 people, is on the geologically active Pacific Ring of Fire and its Tana island active volcano is a major tourist attraction.
Ambrym island, in the centre of the Vanuatu archipelago is also erupting from two active cones and is rated at a threat Level Three, a minor eruption.