May 22, 2006

Some Areas Near Indonesia Volcano Now Seen Safe

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Some regions near Indonesia's rumbling Mount Merapi volcano are now considered safe although the alert level for the entire area is still at its highest, an official said on Tuesday.

Merapi, located in the center of the country's main Java island, has been rumbling for weeks and scientists say a major eruption could come anytime.

The area around it was placed on red alert on May 14, and villagers in the immediate vicinity told to evacuate to shelters.

The subsequent declarations of safety have prompted local governments of areas near the eastern slope to allow evacuees to return to their homes.

"The danger zones have been localized... in the western and southern foothills of Merapi. Other zones are safe," said Triyani, an official at the state-run Center of Volcanological Research and Technology Development in Yogyakarta, the closest city to the volcano.

However, she said any place less than seven kilometers (four miles) from the mountain's crater is still hazardous.

"If they want to go home, go ahead. But if they want to stay at shelters, we will accommodate them," said Syamsudin, who heads the social services office in Boyolali regency, east of Merapi.

Around 7,000 Boyolali residents had been evacuated due to Merapi's red alert.

Many residents living on or near the slopes of Merapi, which means "Mountain of Fire," had already returned to their villages earlier after a major eruption failed to materialize.

During an eruption in 1994, most of the 70 deaths were caused by the outpouring of hot ash and other material down the southern slope where the ancient city of Yogyakarta is located.

Volcanologists fear the collapse of a lava dome that has built up on the mountain could trigger a deadly eruption.

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

Residents say they have yet to see what they consider the traditional signs of an impending major eruption, such as animals fleeing down Merapi's slopes or lightning around the peak.

Meanwhile, at least one local government has found a silver lining in Merapi's potential eruption.

The government of Sleman regency, which is in the dangerous south zone, has run advertisements inviting visitors to witness the natural phenomenon during the coming weekend from sites it claims are safe.