May 17, 2006

Lava Flows from Indonesian Volcano Dwindle

By Tomi Soetjipto

YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia -- Lava flows and clouds of hot gas spouting from Indonesia's Mount Merapi volcano dwindled on Wednesday, enabling evacuees to return to their farms and businesses and children to go back to their schools.

Many planned to return to shelters in the evening, however, and vulcanologists continued to warn people to stay away from 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 the past few days.

Thousands of people have been evacuated to shelters since Indonesia raised the alert status of Merapi on Saturday to the highest level, known as code red or danger status, but many have been returning during the day to cut grass and tend livestock.

"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.

However, it also said 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.

The center had recorded 34 tremors so far on Wednesday, compared with 126 the previous day, while lava had flowed out of the mountain 54 times, down from 257 times a day before.

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

During its last 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.

National news agency Antara reported on Wednesday that President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said he was waiting for word from the volcano experts on whether there was a possibility of lowering the alert status.

"Let us just follow the dynamics of the status, which can become a certain consideration because a change of status indeed will lead to a change of evacuation follow-ups or even can prepare evacuees to return to their respective homes," he told reporters late on Tuesday.

Yudhoyono, who stayed in a makeshift shelter on a visit to the threatened area, had earlier urged officials to be persistent in their efforts to move people away from the danger zone, and warned residents not to assume their villages were safe.

A local 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."

Indonesia, which has the world's highest density of volcanoes, had earlier been struggling to conduct mass evacuation, as some villagers living on the slopes had refused to be moved, saying they rely on natural signs rather than official orders. Residents say such signs would include lightning around the mountain's peak or animals moving down its slopes.

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.