May 14, 2006

Indonesia’s Merapi volcano explodes with gas

By Tomi Soetjipto

KETEP, Indonesia (Reuters) - Indonesia's Mount Merapi
volcano exploded with clouds of hot gas and ash rain early on
Monday, sending some villagers who had been reluctant to leave
scurrying for safety.

Gray ash covered some vegetation and rooftops in the area
of Ketep, 10 kms (six miles) from the base of the mountain, and
many houses appeared deserted after residents evacuated.

Not everyone was gone, however. Some people cleaned ashes
off their houses and others opened shops, while commercial
mini-buses continued to run.

The mountain "has exploded already," the head of the Merapi
section at the Center of Vulcanological Research and Technology
in Yogyakarta told Reuters.

He cautioned, however, that the mountain's eruption process
could be gradual rather than a sudden burst.

From Ketep, the top of Merapi was totally obscured by thick
gray and white clouds, which trailed down the volcano's slopes.

Earlier, Ratmono Purbo, the head of the vulcanology center
in Yogyakarta near the volcano, told reporters the mountain was
spewing clouds of hot gas and was raining down ash.

Neither are new since activity picked up in recent weeks on
Merapai, one of the most menacing volcanoes in the Pacific
"Ring of Fire," and there have been several lava flows in past

But Purbo said of Monday's hot clouds: "This is the biggest
pile we have so far, adding that they "are billowing out of the
crater for four kilometers (2.5 miles)."

Indonesia raised on Saturday the alert status of Merapi to
the highest level, also known as code red or danger status,
although experts said they could not predict when it would

They have described the mountain as being in an "eruption
phase" for weeks, but are looking for a substantial amount of
volcanic material to be ejected straight into the sky to a
substantial height to qualify it as a full eruption.

The top alert level for the mountain means residents can be
forced to evacuate. Authorities moved more than 5,000 people
living near the volcano to shelters in safe areas after the new
alert level.

Thousands more moved earlier, but some have refused to
leave their homes while others have continued to return during
the days to tend livestock, collect grass, or otherwise carry
on their daily routines.

Indonesian media reports said many who previously held back
were leaving on Monday, carried in hundreds of trucks and cars.

Some residents would rather rely on natural signs than
official orders.

They say those signals would include lightning around the
mountain's peak or animals moving down its slopes.

Officials put the total number of residents on and near the
mountain at around 14,000.

(With additional reporting by Telly Nathalia and Diyan