Volcanic ash cloud grounds more flights in Argentina

A cloud of ash billows from the Puyehue volcano near Osorno, 870 km south of Santiago

Several airlines Thursday canceled flights in and out of Buenos Aires due to an ash cloud spewing from a volcano in neighboring Chile, officials told AFP.

"All flights by Aerolineas Argentinas and Austral have been canceled until midday," an airport official said as Argentina marks the Copa America competition which has been drawing thousands of football fans.

Seven international arrivals and nine departures from abroad were also shelved due to Chile's Puyehue volcano which has caused havoc for air travel and tourism since it erupted in early June for the first time in five decades.

"The airports are operational, but the companies can decide to cancel flights because of the ash," the official added.

An Air France flight which had been due to land at Ezeiza international airport in the Argentine capital Thursday was diverted to the Guarulhos airport in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Airports in the resort town of Bariloche and the Patagonian hub Neuquen have remained closed since June 4 after winds spread the volcanic ash across much of southern Argentina, intermittently grounding commercial flights and airports in and around the country's capital.

Flights from airports across South America -- including hubs in Montevideo, the Chilean capital Santiago and southern Brazilian cities -- have also been hit as ash clouds swept around the Southern Hemisphere to linger over Australia and New Zealand.

Argentina is currently playing host to the Copa America -- the world's oldest international football tournament dating back to 1916 -- which has been dubbed a continental finishing school for the World Cup.

Matches are being played around the country and drawing tens of thousands of international and domestic soccer fans, whose travel plans have been complicated by the flight chaos.

A group of Mexican football fans was Thursday trying desperately to travel to Mendoza, some 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) from the Argentine capital to cheer Mexico on Friday as it battles for a quarter-final place against Peru.

Puyehue, which rumbled to life early last month for the first time since 1960, is high in the Andes mountains, 870 kilometers (540 miles) south of Santiago and near the border with Argentina.

On Monday Argentine President Cristina Kirchner announced a slew of economic measures to mitigate the effects of the ash.

Citing a "real tragedy" in Argentina caused by the volcano, Kirchner said the government would double social benefits, as well as defer tax payments and obligations for the hardest-hit Andean cities and towns, including the skiing resort city of Bariloche and Villa La Angostura in the Andes.

The Patagonia mountain range in southwestern Argentina, home to both cities, was declared an environmental disaster area after a massive layer of volcanic ash was dumped there following an eruption.