Volcano forces 20,000 to flee

MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines' most active volcano oozed lava and shot up plumes of ash yesterday, forcing thousands of people to evacuate their homes and face the possibility of a bleak Christmas in a shelter.

State volcanologists raised the alert level on the cone-shaped, 8,070-foot Mayon volcano to two steps below a major eruption after ash explosions. Dark orange lava fragments glowed in the dark as they trickled down the mountain slope overnight.

Renato Solidum, head of the Philippine Institute of Volcanology and Seismology, said the activity could get worse in coming days. "It's already erupting," he said.

More than 20,000 people were evacuated by nightfall yesterday, said Gov. Joey Salceda of Albay province, where Mayon is located about 210 miles southeast of Manila.

- AP

Mexico proposes election reforms

MEXICO CITY - President Felipe Calderon is proposing runoff elections in future presidential contests and reelection for many officials in Mexico's most dramatic political-reform attempt in decades.

The proposal announced yesterday would still limit presidents to a single, six-year term, but it would relax Mexico's ironclad ban on reelection of other officials. It also would allow independent candidates to run for public offices and would permit citizen initiatives.

"The idea is to give citizens more power . . . and to strengthen our democracy," Calderon said in a televised address.

But the reforms would require tough-to-pass constitutional amendments, and they are likely to come under fire from established parties who could see their power eroded.

- AP

Japan delaying decision on base

TOKYO - Japan needs several more months to decide on the relocation of a major U.S. military base on the southern island of Okinawa, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama said yesterday, a delay likely to frustrate Washington.

The United States had hoped for a resolution by year-end, but Hatoyama said a hasty decision would be irresponsible.

Okinawa residents complain about base-related noise, pollution, and crime, and many want the airfield closed and its functions moved off the island entirely.

In Washington, U.S. Marine Commandant James Conway said that moving forward on the base placement was "absolutely vital to the defense that we provide for the entire region."

- AP

Elsewhere:

A magnitude 4.2 earthquake shook the Italian region of Umbria but caused no injuries. Towns in the province of Perugia reported buildings lightly damaged by the temblor. About 600 people people were evacuated, and mayors of several hamlets ordered schools closed for inspections.

Australian scientists discovered an octopus in Indonesia that collects coconut shells for shelter, an unusually sophisticated behavior that researchers believe is the first evidence of tool use in an invertebrate animal. The scientists observed the same activity in four other octopi during dive trips to North Sulawesi and Bali.

German authorities say thieves posing as police made off with $1.45 million in gold and jewelry near Ludwigsburg. The men in a dark BMW with a police light and a red VW van pulled over the transport truck and said they were customs officials and were confiscating the the shipment.