April 17, 2006

Indonesia Prepares to Evacuate as Volcano Trembles

JAKARTA -- Indonesia prepared to evacuate thousands of villagers on Monday after a massive volcano in the heart of densely populated Java island started spewing thick clouds of smoke and hot lava, officials said.

Authorities have placed Mount Merapi, which overlooks the ancient city of Jogjakarta, on Orange Code, or the second highest alert level, following fears of an eruption due to an increase in the number of tremors.

"Due to a high level of tremor activities and the spewing of the lava, Mount Merapi is now on alert status," Dali Ahmad, a volcanologist from the Directorate of Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation, told Reuters by telephone.

Officials said the military had deployed more than 200 trucks and buses to evacuate villagers living on the slopes of Merapi near Jogjakarta, 460 km (285 miles) west of the capital, Jakarta.

"We have conducted an evacuation drill and it appears that villagers have grown used to it," said Sriyanto, a police official.

Mount Merapi's increased volcanic activity prompted President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to order preparations for evacuation.

Merapi's last major eruption was in 1994 when more than 60 people were killed. One of its most destructive eruptions was in 1930, when 1,300 people were killed.

Indonesia sits astride the geologically active Pacific "Ring of Fire" and has more than 100 active volcanoes.

Many Indonesians see activity in Mount Merapi in the mystical heartland of Java as an omen of a looming political eruption.

Thousands of villagers were evacuated in January 1997 when Merapi became more 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.