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Archive for Friday, May 19, 2006

Refugees prefer volcano to camp

May 19, 2006

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— Thousands of villagers fed up with crowded camps have returned to their homes on the slopes of Indonesia's erupting Mount Merapi, ignoring warnings that the peak remains highly dangerous, an official said Thursday.

A camp that held some 2,500 people earlier this week was empty Thursday after a mass departure of refugees, said Insan, an official at the shelter in a government building on the lower slopes of the mountain.

"They said it was like living in a prison," said Insan, who like many Indonesians goes by a single name. "We tried to keep them entertained, but then rumors started spreading that their houses were being looted."

The 9,800-foot volcano has been shooting out lava and deadly clouds of hot ash and debris for several weeks. It has been rocked by a series of spectacular eruptions since Saturday, with the most recent occurring Wednesday.

The main danger at present is clouds of hot ash, debris and gas that surge down the mountainside when the volcano becomes active.

But scientists warned that a 3-million-cubic-yard lava dome that has built up in recent weeks was still perched on the crater and could collapse.

"There is still a possibility of a bigger eruption," said the area's chief vulcanologist, Ratdomopurbo. "We have to watch out for the pattern of the volcano's activities."

The mountain was relatively calm through most of Thursday, with just three or four minor bursts of hot ash, said Sugiono, a local monitor. A late afternoon rock and ash slide extended about 1 1/2 miles down the mountainside, he said.

There have been no reports of casualties or property damage.

It was not clear how many of the roughly 5,000 people initially evacuated from dangerous areas near the crater remained in shelters, including schools, mosques and government offices. Most of those who left were farmers, wanting to return home to tend to crops and animals.

Mount Merapi, which translates as "Fire Mountain," has erupted scores of time over the last 200 years, often with deadly results. It is one of the world's most active volcanoes.

In 1994, 60 people were killed by a searing gas cloud, while in 1930, more than a dozen villages were incinerated, leaving 1,300 dead.

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