By Antonio De la Jara and Rosalba O'Brien

SANTIAGO, March 3 (Reuters) - Volcano Villarrica in southern Chile erupted in the early hours of Tuesday, sending a plume of ash and lava high into the sky, and forcing the evacuation of nearby communities.

The volcano, located near the popular tourist resort of Pucon around 750 km (460 miles) south of the capital Santiago, is one of South America's most active. It last erupted in 2000.

A column of ash and rock particles shot up to 3 km (nearly 2 miles) into the sky overnight. Although the initial violent eruption was short-lived, intermittent clouds of steam and gas continue to issue from the volcano.

A major lava flow is not expected, said Luis Lara, head of national geological service Sernageomin on Tuesday morning, but that could change.

"After an eruptive pulse, which was pretty intense but very short at 3 am (0600 GMT), the volcanic system remains unstable and it is possible that something similar could occur again in the next few hours," he said.

Some 3,385 people had been evacuated as a preventative measure, said Interior Minister Rodrigo Penailillo. There were no reports of any injuries.

Ash from the volcano was for now well under the flight paths used by commercial airliners, and flights were unaffected, said Juan Carlos Rojas, air transit head at the government's civil aeronautics division.

Following an emergency meeting with police and military in the presidential palace in Santiago on Tuesday morning, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet said she would travel immediately to the affected region.

 

RIM OF FIRE

Chile, situated on the so-called Pacific Rim of Fire, has the second largest chain of volcanoes in the world after Indonesia, including around 500 that are potentially active.

In 2011, the eruption of Puyehue sent an ash cloud into the atmosphere that disrupted flights in neighboring Argentina for months.

Villarrica national park in the Los Rios region of Chile is a scenic area of lakes, temperate rainforest and volcanoes that is one of Chile's top tourist attractions.

Over 2,000 people were evacuated from Pucon, which normally serves as a center for hotels and adventure tourism, including dozens who climb snowcapped Villarrica every day.

Holidaymaker Edward Reilley said he was in the nearby town of Villarrica.

"The volcano is quiet now, very calm. You wouldn't know anything had happened," he said. Tourists were trying to leave but locals didn't seem worried, he added. (Reporting by Rosalba O'Brien and Antonio de la Jara; Editing by Crispian Balmer and W Simon)