Merapi volcano death toll surpasses 240 as govt warns of more activity
The death toll from a series of volcanic eruptions that began on Nov. 5 rose to more than 240 Saturday as rescuers continued to search layers of ash for victims. Government volcano experts have warned that Mount Merapi remains highly active.
AFP - Rescuers pulled more bodies from the ashen ruins of villages engulfed by eruptions from Indonesia's most dangerous volcano, raising the number who have perished to 240 on Saturday.
The authorities have warned the hundreds of thousands living in makeshift shelters not to return to their homes as Mount Merapi, which lies at the centre of Java island, remained highly active and unpredictable.
"We don't know and cannot predict the next big eruptions, so refugees still have to stay in makeshift camps until further evaluations," government volcanologist Subandrio said.
"Merapi activity is still high and it still has an alert status."
Many of the dead were buried under fast-flowing torrents of boiling hot gas and rock that incinerated villages when the volcano exploded on November 5 in its biggest eruption in over a century.
Housewife Erna, 36, said she had little hope of find four missing relatives, including her three-year-old niece, after the devastation that engulfed her village of Kepuharjo, five kilometres (three miles) from the crater.
"They might have been buried there in their house," Erna said as she looked in despair at her village which has been transformed into a vast desert of fine grey volcanic ash.
A disaster management official said the death toll had now reached 240 after rescuers recovered more bodies from the disaster zone, while about 390,000 people have fled their homes.
Mount Merapi, a sacred landmark in Javanese tradition whose name translates as "Mountain of Fire", emitted more heat clouds late Friday for about an hour, reaching as far as 10 kilometres away from the crater.
"It recently belched ash upward as high as 1,200 metres. Then the ash blew to the south and southwest of the volcano," Subandrio said.
The government has declared a danger zone that stretches as far as 20 kilometres from the volcano, which also had a deadly eruption in late October.
Makbul Mubarak, a coordinator for volunteers in the area, said 139 people had been reported missing in the district of Sleman, one of four affected by the volcanic eruptions.
"Most of the missing people are adults and old people. I hope that they are still alive," he said.
Disaster management agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho warned of potential flooding and urged people to avoid any activity close to rivers on the volcano's south and western flanks.
"With intense rainfall during the wet season, the thick liquid material (from the volcano) can flood and ruin infrastructure, such as bridges, and cause landslides," he said.
According to a volcanologist, lava has already overwhelmed major rivers and started to flow into tributaries on the lower slopes of Merapi.
The airport serving the nearest city of Yogyakarta, which lies around 25 kilometres south of the volcano, has been closed until Monday because of ash clouds.
Subandrio said several Japanese volcanologists were in the area to assist in monitoring the volcano's activity and would be installing several "infrasonic sensors" that could monitor air pressure caused by the eruptions.
"The sensors will be placed around 20 kilometres away from the crater. These devices will improve our ability to observe Merapi's activity" Subandrio said.
Merapi killed around 1,300 people in 1930 but experts say the current eruptions are its biggest convulsions since 1872.