May 17, 2006

Indonesian volcano spews clouds of hot gas

By Tomi Soetjipto

YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia (Reuters) - Indonesia's Mount Merapi volcano shot a new large burst of hot gas clouds into the air late on Wednesday, and there were reports of new ash falls, but activity remained below earlier levels.

The clouds reached a length of about 3 km (about 2 miles), Subandrio, head of the Merapi section at the Center for Vulcanological Research and Technology Development, told Reuters.

That compared with about 4 km on Monday, when Merapi had shown the most activity since a red alert was declared two days earlier, and 6 km in 1994 during the last major eruption.

"The Merapi situation has been going lower since Monday. Of course, it is still puffing out hot smoke," Subandrio said.

Earlier on Wednesday, with lava flows and gas clouds markedly diminished, evacuees returned to their farms and businesses and children went back to their schools.

But at the end of the day many headed for shelters further away to spend the night. Vulcanologists continued to warn them to avoid danger zones on the slopes of Merapi, one of the most menacing volcanoes in the "Pacific Ring of Fire."

The mountain has been on the verge of a major eruption for weeks, but activity can be erratic and unpredictable ahead of that, scientists say.

"The office still orders people to stop their activities such as farming, walking up the slope and mining of sand in restricted areas," said the Center of Vulcanological Research and Technology Development in Yogyakarta near Mount Merapi.

The head of the center, Ratmono Purbo, said the center was maintaining its top alert status. "The status until now is still dangerous. It is not the time yet to bring it down," said Purbo.

"Merapi has never had a predictable character. It never goes down evenly. It is always fluctuating," he said.

The center said earlier on Wednesday the number and frequency of tremors, lava flows and hot clouds, known locally as "shaggy goats," belching out of the crater of the mountain in central Java had decreased considerably.

Vulcanologists have been saying the possible collapse of a swelling lava dome could trigger more massive and dangerous clouds and sprays of lava.

Purbo said the formation of the lava dome continued but at a slower pace.


During the eruption in 1994, most of the 70 deaths were caused by the outpouring of hot ash and other material following the collapse of a lava dome.

The volcano killed 1,300 people in 1930.

There were widespread ash falls on Monday, although there were no casualties, and national news agency Antara reported that after Wednesday's afternoon burst of action ash turned one area dark "but people could still continue their activities."

Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who stayed in a makeshift shelter overnight Tuesday on a visit to the threatened area, has urged officials to be persistent in their efforts to move people away from the danger zone. He warned residents not to assume their villages were safe.

An official said there were around 20,000 people living in the danger zone in Sleman, only 5,000 of whom were in temporary shelters while many preferred to stay with their relatives in safer areas.

"There was an increase in the number of displaced people last night," the official said. "But there are many people who have decided to stay with their relatives instead of at a camp."

Many villagers consider the volcano sacred. Every year, a traditional Javanese priest climbs to the top to make an offering.

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.