Thousands flee homes fearing eruption in Indonesia

Thousands of villagers began fleeing their homes in the path of red-hot lava flows oozing from Indonesia’s Mount Merapi on Saturday as officials said an eruption looked imminent.

But many residents were still reluctant to leave their homes, despite a mandatory evacuation order, they said.

“Merapi’s alert status has been upgraded to the highest level of alert,” Jilal from the volcanology office in Yogyakarta, a university town 30km from the volcano told Agence France-Presse.

“The increasing volcanic activity has led us to make this decision.”

Jilal said Merapi had begun spewing hot volcanic ash, but it was still in relatively small amounts, and was also shooting thick white smoke up to 400m into the air from its crater.

The volcano, which has been rumbling for four years on and off, was raised to a “stand-by” alert level a month ago and its activity has since then increased.

On Friday, Jilal said 30 blazing lava flows were reported to be streaming towards the Krasak and Boyong rivers along the south-western slopes of the mountain, reaching a distance of 1,5km from the volcano’s peak.

Edy Susanto, head of Magelang district’s evacuation agency, said officials, since late on Friday night, had begun evacuating some 7 000 residents living in eight villages on the western and south-western slopes of Merapi.

“There are eight villages which are located in the danger zone. They have to be evacuated,” he said.

“We are trying our best not to cause panic among the residents, but our main problem is some of these people refuse to be evacuated,” Susanto told AFP.

Traditional beliefs hold that Merapi will only erupt after certain omens, some of which appear in dreams, leaving many more superstitious residents reluctant to leave without them becoming apparent.

Some residents, however, have already told officials they are worried about their property, cattle and crops being taken if they depart.

Susanto said officials began evacuating people hours before Merapi’s alert status was officially raised.

“Our main priority is for these people to be safely evacuated with the help of the armed forces, soldiers and police,” said Susanto, adding that the residents would be taken to some 30 refugee shelters located across Magelang.

A new lava dome has been rapidly forming at the peak of Mount Merapi, growing 75m in two weeks.

Scientists have said that its collapse will release lava as well as deadly “nuees ardentes”, a geological term for clouds of volcanic gases, ash, and dust reaching temperatures up to 500ºC.

Merapi’s most deadly eruption occurred in 1930, when 1 369 people were killed.

Indonesia sits on the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, noted for its volcanic and seismic activity. The country has more than 100 active volcanoes—the highest concentration in the world.—AFP

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