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Race against time on Mount Etna

MOUNT ETNA, Sicily -- Italian authorities are battling to divert a wall of lava advancing steadily towards a tourist centre on Sicily's Mount Etna.

Europe's most active volcano has been gushing ash and lava from fractures on its southern slopes for more than a week.

Overnight, the lava had reached the car park near a tourist refuge, called Rifugio Sapienza, which lies at an altitude of 6,266 feet.

On Friday morning, the centre's wooden warehouse was swallowed by the lava.

Officials say they are encouraged because the flow appears to be slowing, but a wall of lava is still building up around the tourist area.

The owner of a shop in the area shut down the store and placed a statue of the Madonna before its entrance.

CNN's Matthew Chance reports on the scientific implications of Mt. Etna's eruption (July 27)

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CNN's Matthew Chance: Emergency teams racing against time
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Living in the shadow of a volcano  
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Picture gallery: Mount Etna  
On the Scene: Mount Etna provides 'awesome, dramatic display'  

The archbishop of Catania said he would pray with people from a village on the slopes of the mountain on Sunday to ask that the eruption stop. Police have barred tourists from going up the mountain.

Giovanni Serafina, the owner of a bar near the encroaching lava, told The Associated Press: "It is a terrible moment for those of us who are up here. Certainly even our grandfathers can't even remember it being like this."

Nello Musumeci, a government commissioner, said: "We are fighting an enemy which is much stronger than man."

About 10 army bulldozers were sent up the mountain on Thursday to help exhausted crews of workers build earthworks around Rifugio Sapienza.

On Wednesday the lava cut across the path of three central pylons of Mount Etna's ski lift, which is 1.5 miles long, as it made its way down the mountain.

A wall of lava then began building up above the base station, and civil protection officials asked the army to send in heavy equipment.

Sonia Calvari, volcanologist with the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Catania, Sicily, told CNN: "We know now that the volcano is still inflating. We see lava flow in many parts of the eruptive fissure.

"It's, of course, a very important eruption. The most important I've seen in 15 years."

Experts say the eruption could go on for weeks.

The only town threatened by lava is Nicolosi, home to 6,000 people, but the lava is still about two-and-a-half miles away and officials say that particular flow has slowed to a virtual standstill.

Nicolosi Mayor Salvatore Mischetto said the news was still bad. At least 300 residents of Nicolosi work on the mountain, many on the ski lift and at Rifugio Sapienza, and their jobs are now in jeopardy, he said.

Rivers of lava have flowed down the sides of the volcano, threatening nearby villages. Thousands of gallons of water have been dropped by air to try to cool the advancing flow.

The eruption has caused $3.1 million in damage, including losses in tourism and agriculture, the local government said.

The last major eruption of Mount Etna, which towers 10,860 feet (3,310 metres) above Sicily, was in 1992. In a spectacular operation, Italian and U.S. military used controlled explosions to divert the flow.

A state of emergency remains in effect in the region, with dozens of families on standby to leave the village of Nicolosi.

CNN correspondent Matthew Chance said there were no plans to evacuate populated areas even though lava was approaching, but emergency services said they were continuing to monitor the flow.

• The Etna Volcano Park
• Etna Decade Volcano, Sicily, Italy
• Mt. Etna, Sicily, Italy
• Volcanoes Around The World

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