April 13, 2005

Second Volcano Intensifies Alarm in Indonesia

MOUNT TALANG, Indonesia (AFP) -- A second Indonesian volcano has sprung to life after a series of terrifying quakes, intensifying fears that the archipelago's violent geological forces will unleash a new disaster.

Tangkuban Perahu, a smouldering 2,076-metre (6,933 foot) mountain near the city of Bandung on Java island, began rumbling overnight, prompting scientists to raise the alarm and declare the summit around the open crater off limits.

"There is possibility that poisonous gas may come out," said Surono, a vulcanology and geological disaster mitigation official, who said Wednesday the volcano's alert status had been raised from "alert" to "prepare".

A day earlier, more than 20,000 people fled the slopes of Mount Talang on Sumatra island, as the peak spewed hot ash after being unsettled by huge tremors from the same faultline that caused last year's deadly tsunami.

There was new panic on Wednesday as a volcanic earthquake struck Talang at 10:00 am (0300 GMT), causing many to rush out of the buildings, mosques and schools they have been sheltering in since evacuating their villages.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who has called an emergency summit of regional governors to discuss volcanoes, visited Talang Wednesday to try to calm some of people who have abandoned their homes.

The volcano was still spewing ash as of late afternoon.

Some 25 large tents have been pitched for thousands of residents who had fled their homes to the nearby Payung Sakaki district.

Indonesia has more than 130 active volcanoes and endures daily seismic jolts attributed to the Pacific "ring of fire" -- restless fissures in the earth's crust which cause seismic activity from Japan to the Indian Ocean.

But nerves have been sorely tested by two recent giant quakes, among the largest recorded in the past century, which have claimed thousands of lives and generated intense speculation over an impending third disaster.

On December 26 last year, a massive 9.3 magnitude earthquake off Sumatra triggered a tsunami that crashed onto Indian Ocean shorelines killing more than 220,000 people, most of them Indonesians.

Three months later the same faultline sent out a seismic shockwave measuring 8.7 on the Richter scale, causing extensive destruction on the Sumatra coast islands of Nias and Simeulue and leaving more than 670 people dead.

Thousands of people on the islands have refused to leave temporary hilltop camps, with forecasts by scientists of a third impending disaster fuelling rumours that a quake and tsunami could strike at any time.

A strong 6.7 aftershock felt in the Sumatra coast city of Padang late Sunday prompted a similar evacuation, leaving many markets, schools and office buildings deserted. Another 5.3 tremor rattled the city on Wednesday.

At Mount Talang, 40 kilometres (25 miles) east of Padang, scientists were closely monitoring the volcano's activity after having raised its status to "beware", one rung short of a full-blown eruption.

Syamsurizal, a geologist at Indonesia's vulcanology headquarters in Bandung, said that since an outburst early Tuesday, there had been several smaller explosions and ash emissions, but no signs of an impending major eruption.

Talang has had at least four major eruptions, all in the 19th century, and three smaller eruptions in 1981, 2001 and 2003.

Mas Ace Purbawinata, a senior geologist deployed to Talang, told ElShinta radio that the volcano appeared to be calming down, but the tremors indicated that molten lava was trying to force through the Earth's crust.

"The (frequency of) volcanic tremors is still quite high," he said.