The Fuego volcano, one of Guatemala's most active, spewed columns of ash high above its crater and lava down its flanks, prompting authorities to evacuate more than 10,000 nearby inhabitants.

The Conred emergency management agency decreed a red alert for communities near the erupting volcano, located 50 kilometers (31 miles) southwest of Guatemala City, and at least 10,600 people began to be relocated Thursday to shelters in the town of Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa, some 100 kilometers south of the capital.

Firefighters and army personnel were participating in the evacuation of Sangre de Cristo, Panimache I and II, Morelia, Santa Sofia, Yucales and La Rochela.

Alejandro Maldonado, Conred's director, told local media Thursday evening that the shelters had sufficient supplies of food, potable water and blankets for the evacuees.

The alert will be in effect for "at least the next 12 hours" and authorities will then evaluate the state of the volcano and whether it is advisable for the evacuees to return to their homes, he said, adding that their numbers could rise to 33,000.

Vice President Roxana Baldetti visited the first shelters set up in public buildings in Santa Lucia Cotzumalguapa to coordinate assistance for those forced to leave their homes.

The Fuego volcano began erupting for the sixth time this year at around 4:00 a.m. Thursday, with powerful explosions sending columns of ash more than 3,000 meters (9,830 feet) above its crater.

Civil aviation officials ordered a halt to air traffic in southern and southwestern Guatemala, grounding flights between Guatemala City and the Mexican state of Chiapas.

Authorities reported that volcanic sand had fallen in the provinces of Escuintla, Mazatenango, Retalhuleu, San Marcos and the border with Mexico and caused reduced visibility on highways.

Thursday marked Fuego's most powerful "moderately strong" eruption since 1999, even larger than those of 2002 and 2003, a volcanologist with the National Seismology Institute, or Insivumeh, said.

The volcano has erupted 60 times since 1524, with the most violent occurring in 1932, 1971, 1974 and 1999.

Eddy Sanchez, Insivumeh's director, told reporters that the temperature of the lava exceeded 700 C (1,290 F) and the columns of ash soared to as much as 3,000 meters (9,830 feet) above the base of the crater.

Fuego, whose name in the indigenous Kakchikel language, is "Chi Cag" (where the fire is), is one of the most impressive, constantly active volcanoes in Central America.

Rising 3,760 meters (12,327 feet) above sea level, it straddles the provinces of Sacatepequez, Chimaltenango and Escuintla and has been continuously active since 1999. EFE