Volcano forces flight cancellations

INDONESIA’S most dangerous volcano has forced international airlines to cancel flights to nearby airports, as fiery lava lit the rumbling mountain’s cauldron and plumes of smoke blackened the sky.

Scientists warned, meanwhile, that the slow but deadly eruption could continue for weeks, like a “marathon, not a sprint”.  No casualties were reported in Mount Merapi’s latest blasts, which came as Indonesia struggled to respond to an earthquake-generated tsunami that devastated a remote chain of islands.

The two disasters unfolding in separate parts of the country have killed nearly 470 people and strained the government’s emergency response network.  Merapi has killed 38 people since springing back to life just over a week ago, at times forcing the temporary closure of two nearby airports.

Officials in Yogyakarta, the gateway to the famed 9th-century Borobudur temples visited by one million tourists a year, and nearby Solo, have cited poor visibility and heavy ash on the runway.

Both airports were running today but Malaysia’s budget airline AirAsia and Singapore’s SilkAir announced the temporary suspension of several international flights because of the smoldering mountain, just 30km away.

There have been more than 10 large eruptions at Merapi since the first big explosion on October 26, including a violent burst on Monday that appeared to have eased pressure inside the crater by creating a vent for magma to escape. A series of three much smaller eruptions followed today.

“There’s no way of knowing for sure, of course,” said Safari Dwiyono, who has observed the mountain for more than 15 years.  “But based on what we’ve seen in the last few days, we’re hoping there won’t be a massive explosion. It’s looking like we’re in for a marathon, not a sprint.”

The nearly 70,000 villagers evacuated from the area around Merapi’s once-fertile slopes – now blanketed by grey ash – have been told they could be expected to stay in crowded government camps for at least three more weeks.

More than 1300km to the west, meanwhile, a C-130 transport plane, six helicopters and four boats were ferrying aid to the most distant corners of the Mentawai islands, where last week’s tsunami destroyed hundreds of homes, schools, churches and mosques.  The tsunami death toll stood yesterday at 431, the National Disaster Management Agency said.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said relief efforts must be sped up, expressing dismay that it took days for aid to reach the isolated islands, although he acknowledged that violent storms were largely to blame.

Meanwhile, the Indonesian government has raised alert levels of 21 other volcanos to the second- and third-highest levels in the last two months because they have shown an increase in activity, state volcanologist Syamsul Rizal said yesterday.

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