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Indonesia's Merapi Volcano Explodes With Gas, Ash

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MOUNT MERAPI - Indonesia's Mount Merapi volcano erupted with clouds of hot gas and rained ash on surrounding areas on Monday, sending some nearby villagers who had been reluctant to leave scurrying for safety.

Grey ash covered crop fields and hundreds of rooftops in the area of Ketep, 10 km (six miles) from the base of the mountain, and many houses appeared deserted after residents evacuated.

Not everyone was gone, however. Some people cleaned ashes off their houses and others opened shops, while commercial mini-buses continued to run.

As ash rained down on villages around the mountain, schoolchildren in uniform hurried to class, covering their noses and mouths.

The mountain "has exploded already", the head of the Merapi section at the Centre of Vulcanological Research and Technology in Yogyakarta told Reuters.

He cautioned, however, that Merapi's eruption process could be gradual rather than a sudden burst, and that the massive eruption scientists fear had yet to come.

The top of Merapi was totally obscured by thick grey and white clouds, which trailed down the volcano's slopes.

"This morning it was like dusk. The village was quite dark," Mariadi, 25, said. "The ashes were pouring in for one hour," he said, adding that villagers did not panic.

"A lot of us just stayed inside the house" to avoid breathing difficulties and teary eyes outside, Mariadi said.

Shopkeeper Surti, 45, told Reuters that when she woke up "there was a pile of smoke coming (out of Merapi) and then ash started pouring in". She opened her shop anyway, saying she did not think her village was in serious danger.

Merapi, about 450 km (280 miles) east of Jakarta, is one of the most active volcanoes in Indonesia, which sits in the Pacific "Ring of Fire", and has sporadically belched deadly gas, hot ash and lava on the surrounding area.

During a 1994 eruption, most of the 70 casualties were caused by the outpouring of hot ash and other material following the collapse of a lava dome. The volcano killed 1,300 people in a 1930 eruption.

Although a Reuters witness saw lava flowing from the side of the mountain in the early hours of Monday, that was before the fresh clouds of hot gas and ash spewed from the volcano.

Lava, gas and ash have all been seen off and on since the volcano's activity picked up in recent weeks.

But Ratmono Purbo, the head of the vulcanology centre in Yogyakarta, said of Monday's hot clouds: "This is the biggest pile we have so far, adding that they "are billowing out of the crater for four kilometres (2.5 miles)".

Indonesia raised the alert status of Merapi on Saturday to the highest level, also known as code red or danger status.

Experts have described the mountain as being in an "eruption phase" for weeks, but are looking for a substantial amount of volcanic material to be ejected straight into the sky to a substantial height to qualify it as a full eruption.

The top alert level for the mountain means residents can be forced to evacuate.

Authorities had moved more than 5,000 people living near the volcano to shelters in safe areas immediately after the new alert level, and local media said thousands more were leaving on Monday, carried in hundreds of trucks and cars.

Like the reluctant villagers of Ketep, many have refused to leave their homes and their livelihoods. Others have continued to return during the days to tend livestock, collect grass, or otherwise carry on their daily routines.

Some residents would rather rely on natural signs than scientists.

They say those signals would include lightning around the Merapi's peak or animals moving down its slopes.

Officials had put the total number of residents on and close to the mountain at around 14,000 before the evacuations, with many thousands more living not far away.

The mountain is in the centre of Java, Indonesia's most populated island.

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