May 13, 2006

Indonesia raises alert status of volcano

By Tomi Soetjipto

JAKARTA -- Indonesia raised the alert status of the Mount Merapi volcano to the highest level on Saturday, prompting a compulsory evacuation of thousands of residents living on the slopes, officials said.

"This morning we raised the status of Merapi to the top alert, which is the red code. Every resident has been ordered to evacuate," Subandrio, head of the Merapi section at the Center for Volcanological Research and Technology Development, told Reuters.

He said lava had been spewing out of Merapi's crater as well as smoke, but he could not say when the volcano was likely to erupt.

Lava had flowed around 1.6 km (1 mile) from the volcano's crater, but so far it had not reached any residential areas, Subandrio said.

Dali, another vulcanologist, said the top alert -- also known as code red or 'danger' status -- meant that technically the mountain could erupt within the next 24 hours.

"That is the standard measurement, but again we could not give a precise prediction," Dali told Reuters .

"We raised the status to danger because there has been more and more hot smoke coming out of the crater. We also recorded a growing number of tremors," he said.

Merapi, which means "mountain of fire," lies near the ancient city of Yogyakarta at the center of densely populated Java island. The volcano killed 70 people in a 1994 eruption and 1,300 in 1930.

Indonesia, which has the world's highest density of volcanoes, has already moved about 1,300 people away from Merapi, but officials put the total number of residents on and near the mountain at around 14,000, which includes villages in Central Java and Yogyakarta provinces.

A local official said that compulsory evacuation for thousands of residents on the slopes was underway.

"Around 4,046 residents in three districts are now being evacuated from the slopes," said the official, who declined to be identified.

The local government has been struggling to conduct mass evacuation because some villagers living on the slopes refuse to be moved because they rely on natural signs rather official orders.

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

Most Javanese villagers consider the mountain sacred. Every year a priest climbs to the top to make an offering.

Many Indonesians also see activity in Mount Merapi as an omen of looming political unrest.

Thousands of villagers were evacuated in January 1997 when Merapi became active, just months before the Asian financial crisis struck.

Most Javanese, who make up the bulk of Indonesia's 220 million people, are Muslim, but many cling to a spiritual past and believe a supernatural kingdom exists on top of Merapi.