Volcano death toll rises to 36 as more bodies are airlifted off ash-blanketed mountain

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Five more bodies have been found near the summit of a Japanese volcano, police said, as toxic gases and ash from the still-erupting mountain forced rescue workers to halt efforts to recover the victims.

The discovery takes the total presumed dead to 36.

Eight other bodies were airlifted off Mount Ontake before work on the ash-blanketed peak was called off around 1.30pm local time, said Naofumi Miyairi, a spokesman for the Nagano prefecture police.

Together with four victims brought down on Sunday, 12 bodies have now been recovered, leaving 24 near the summit. Exactly how they died remains unclear, whether from gases, suffocating ash, falling rocks or other causes.

Police said the latest victims were found near a shrine at the summit, the same area where other victims were reportedly found.

Japanese TV network TBS showed soldiers carrying yellow body bags one by one to a military helicopter that landed in a relatively wide-open area of the now bleak landscape, its rotors still spinning.

The bodies were flown to a nearby athletic field, the surrounding forested hills contrasting with Mount Ontake’s ash-grey peak in the background, a reduced plume still emerging from its crater.

The bodies were then taken to a small wooden elementary school in the nearby town of Kiso, where they were being examined in the gymnasium. Family members of the missing waited at a nearby municipal hall.

More than 200 soldiers and firefighters, including units with gas detection equipment, were part of the search mission near the peak, said Katsunori Morimoto, an official in the village of Otaki.

The effort was halted because of an increase in toxic gas and ash as the volcano continued to spew fumes, he said. “It sounds like there is enormous ash fall up there,” he said.

The rescuers reported a strong smell of sulphur, Mr Morimoto said.

Saturday’s eruption was the first fatal one in modern times at the 10,062ft (3,067m) mountain, a popular climbing destination 130 miles (210km) west of Tokyo. An eruption occurred in 1979, but no-one was killed.