Volcano's swollen lava dome menaces village below
A GROWING dome of lava on Mount Merapi's crater is poised to collapse and could send clouds of red-hot gases into villages below, a scientist warned yesterday as activity inside the Indonesian volcano intensified.
But even as black clouds billowed high into the sky and lava flows scorched fresh scars down the mountain's western flank, many villagers ignored evacuation orders and returned to their homes to tend animals and the crops that flourish on its fertile slopes.
Vulcanologists increased Merapi's alert status to the highest level on Saturday after weeks of activity at the 9,800ft peak, which rises from the plains of the densely populated island of Java. Thousands of women, children and the elderly were immediately shuttled by bus and lorries to emergency shelters.
Some men were allowed to stay behind overnight to ensure thieves did not move in.
"I cannot force them," said Widi Sutikno, the official co-ordinating the emergency response. "All I can do is tell them to keep looking up at the mountain and have a motorbike ready."
Merapi - one of about 130 active volcanoes in Indonesia - last erupted in 1994, sending out a searing cloud of gas that burned 60 people to death. About 1,300 people were killed when it erupted in 1930.
Sugiono, one of a team of scientists monitoring the volcano 24 hours a day, who like many Indonesians uses only a single name, said the clouds - containing a mix of hot ash, rock fragments and volcanic gas - were the main worry this time round.
The dome of lava, formed by magma forced to the surface, is at the point of collapse and could propel the clouds down the mountain at several hundred miles an hour, he said.
"Hot clouds keep appearing all the time," Sugiono explained. "If you get stuck in them, then you have no chance."
In one village in the shadow of Merapi, holy men burned incense and floated offerings of rice, fruit and vegetables on a river running down from the mountain in a special ceremony they believe will ward off an eruption.
Although most Indonesians are Muslim, many also follow animist beliefs and worship ancient spirits, especially in central Java province.
At full moons, they often trek to crater rims and throw in rice, jewellery and live animals to appease the volcano.
"All the things we are doing here are to try to make us safe," said Assize Asyhori, an Islamic preacher who also took part in the ceremony. "Only Allah knows if Merapi will explode."
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