Over 22 000 evacuated from slopes of Mount Merapi

More than 22 000 people have been evacuated from the slopes of Indonesia’s smoke-belching Mount Merapi, but the volcano appeared to have temporarily calmed down early on Tuesday.

Clear weather after dawn showed a relatively peaceful Merapi, with thin smoke streaming out of its peak and none of Monday’s impressive heat cloud torrents, as locals prepared for a visit by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.

Monday saw a major cloud of gas and ash reach four kilometres down Merapi’s slopes, which have also been blazed by lava trails since authorities raised an alert to its top level on Saturday, forcing the evacuation of residents.

“It has been passably calm during the first six hours of today, [Tuesday]” said an official from the vulcanology office in Yogyakarta, 30km south of Merapi.

A total of 16 870 people have been evacuated in three districts in Central Java province, said a disaster control official who gave his name as Rudi in the provincial capital Semarang.

More than 5 600 others have been taken to safety in Sleman district, a part of Yogyakarta province, according to the latest figures posted at the district disaster task force centre.

This number, however, included those men registered with authorities who have remained in the danger zone to guard their homes and cattle, said Harjo, the task force chief for the village of Wonokerto.

“They are still considered as evacuees as they are sent meals from the safe shelters and are ready to evacuate once the danger becomes real,” Harjo said. He did not provide a estimate for the number of people who have chosen to stay.

Rudi said that authorities may begin to get tough with those refusing to evacuate from the surrounds of the 2 914m-high volcano, rising majestically from the Kedu plain in Central Java.

“We may resort to forcing them to evacuate since this is for their own good and safety,” he said.

But in Sleman district, authorities had no such plan, said one official named Sutanto, who explained: “We will not force people to flee but we will ready everything possible to allow them to flee at the last minute.”

Vehicles were on standby in the uppermost villages on the slope and in those villages lying in the most likely paths of lava or heat clouds, he said.

Scientists have said that Merapi, Indonesia’s second most active volcano, is likely to erupt when the new lava dome that has been rapidly forming at its peak collapses.

Merapi’s most deadly eruption occurred in 1930, when 1 369 people were killed by lava and heat clouds. Another in 1994 unleashed heat clouds that killed more than 60 people.

In the Pakem area of Sleman, the planned visit by Yudhoyono provided a distraction for bored evacuees.

“I really would like to see the president from close by,” said Ngatiyem with a near-toothless grin as she sat with fellow evacuees at the Hargobinangun safe shelter.

Two military armoured vehicles passing along the main road in preparation for the visit drew curious onlookers.

The president is scheduled to visit a series of evacuation centres, officials said.
- Sapa-AFP

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