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Indonesia battles two natural disasters in a week

As the human toll rises from Monday’s tsunami off Western Sumatra, with nearly 300 people declared dead and over 400 missing, the Indonesian government is trying to keep more lives from being lost in Java. Mount Merapi is one of Indonesia’s most volatile volcanoes and erupted on Tuesday, spewing out hot ash and gas. 28 people were killed in the eruption, including a two-month old baby. The elderly local known as the Mbah or grandfather Marijan, who was appointed by the late sultan to mediate with the spirits of the volcano, was also believed to be among the dead.

Over 90 people were also injured, burnt by hot rocks and ash falling over the surrounding area. Reporters to the region describe a fine grey dust now covering this normally green and lush part of Indonesia. Despite a lull in the ash raining down, experts fear there could be further eruptions. If there is enough pressure building up inside the volcano, this could cause a large eruption or a pyroclastic flow, where heat, ash and poisonous gases travel at great speed in clouds emitted by the volcano.

The authorities have evacuated at least 10,000 people from the area to emergency shelters and an 8 kilometre exclusion zone around the volcano has been created. However, officials are worried by the fact that some locals are ignoring warnings and venturing back inside the zone. Checkpoints have been set up by police to stop anyone returning by the major roads, but there are many small lanes which give access to the slopes. Some locals have been returning to their homes inside the restricted zone to retrieve personal belongings or check on livestock.

The district chief is anxious there should be no further casualties and describes nearby villages to the volcano as “death zones”, with the land and houses scorched. The last major eruption from the volcano happened in 2006, when two people died, but a more powerful eruption in 1930 destroyed 13 villages and killed over 1,000 people.

Since it is unclear whether the present lull in the volcano’s activity is just a temporary respite, the authorities are keen to keep the area on the highest alert level and continue with evacuations. Indonesia’s president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who had been due to take part in an Asian summit of leaders in Vietnam this week, flew home to check all possible precautions and emergency procedures had been put in place to avoid further loss of life.

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