June 12, 2006

Indonesia’s Merapi may come off top alert soon: expert

By Adi Kurniawan

MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia (Reuters) - Indonesia's Mount
Merapi could be downgraded from its top alert status soon as
the volcano has spewed less hot gas and molten lava in recent
days, an expert said on Monday.

Merapi -- in central Java near the ancient royal city of
Yogyakarta, 440 km (270 miles) east of Jakarta -- is considered
one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the Pacific "Ring of
Fire." It has been threatening a major eruption for weeks,
forcing the evacuation of about 18,000 people from its slopes.

Some residents who had refused to move were spurred into
action after an earthquake shook the Yogyakarta area on May 27,
killing more than 5,700 people and intensifying Merapi's

But after massive clouds and fresh lava flows late last
week, Merapi was calm on Saturday and Sunday, said Triyani,
from the state-run Center for Vulcanological Research and
Technology in Yogyakarta.

"Its status is in top alert still. Let's see in one to two
days ahead whether it will be downgraded or not. I hope so,"
she told Reuters.

Experts feared that a lava dome, which has been building up
since April as a result of activity, could collapse, generating
clouds of gas and lava flows that could cause casualties.

But a partial degrading of the dome last week may have
relieved enough pressure to reduce that danger.

"I don't know whether the critical circumstance has passed
or not. Just wait to see whether the lava dome has settled in
its position," Triyani said.

More than 60 people were killed when Merapi last erupted in
1994, while 1,300 people died in a 1930 eruption.

The smoke cloud decreased overnight on Sunday and there
were fewer lava eruptions. Most villages located 7 km (4 miles)
from the peak of Merapi have been considered within the danger
zone under the top alert status.

While refugees continued to stay overnight in camps, some
are still going to Merapi's slopes to feed their livestock
every day, returning to the shelters in the afternoon in army

The rich volcanic soil around Merapi produces abundant
grass which villagers feed to their dairy cattle.

Many residents in the area have held prayers and made
special offerings to placate the angry mountain. 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.

Despite the danger, some people have remained in their
villages to look after their homes, cows and farms where they
grow maize, red chilies and tomatoes.

Some said they would only leave if they saw what they
regard as natural signs an eruption was imminent, such as
lightning around the mountain's peak or animals moving down its

(Additional reporting in Jakarta by Diyan Jari)