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The BBC's Fiona Werge
"A cloud of ash 5 km high towers over the volcano"
 real 56k

Sunday, 11 February, 2001, 02:26 GMT
Villagers flee Java volcano
Mount Merapi
Merapi has been spewing lava for weeks
Thousands of people in the shadow of Mount Merapi in Indonesia have been evacuated as scientists fear that smoke, ash and lava could be a prelude to a major volcanic eruption.

We have raised it to the highest warning level so all villages near the mountain have been told to evacuate

Volcanologist Ratdo Mopurbo
The authorities issued a top-level alert to all villages within an 8km (five-mile) radius when conditions worsened dramatically and the mountain began belching clouds of ash and smoke across a wide area.

Residents were taken to evacution camps as clouds of steam and streams of hot lava rolled down the slopes of the volcano.

State news agency Anatara said up to 12,000 were evacuated and masks were issued to residents in towns near to the mountain.

Ash rain was reported to have fallen on cities as far as 100km away.

Eruption potential

No casualties have been reported despite lava flows spreading more than 6km from the mountain in central Java.

ash cloud
Ash has risen miles into the sky
Vulcanologists have been monitoring Merapi for weeks and say the potential for increased activity is high.

But they have not yet classified its month-long rumblings, however violent, as an eruption.

"We would only classify it as an eruption if the hot clouds billowing from the dome go straight up high into the sky, and are accompanied by a huge explosion," one expert told the AFP news agency from the slopes of the mountain.

"What's happening right now is just an outpouring, not an explosion."

Health officials last week distributed thousands of masks to people living near the 2,968 metre (9,794-foot) volcano.

'Ring of Fire'

Volcanic ash can cause respiratory illnesses, skin diseases, diarrhoea and severe eye infections.

Merapi menace
1998: Ash and gas force thousands to flee
1994: 60 killed
1930: 1,300 killed
Merapi's most destructive eruption in living memory was in 1930, when about 1,300 people were killed.

In November 1994 it erupted without warning, killing more than 60 people.

Four years later thousands were forced to flee their homes as it spewed ash and toxic gas.

Merapi is one of some 500 volcanoes in Indonesia, at least 129 of which are considered active.

Villager tends his field
Thousands have made homes on the mountain's rich soil
It lies in one of Indonesia's most densely populated regions, and is only a few kilometres from the ancient city of Yogyakarta, an area now home to two million people.

The city remains unaffected so far.

Indonesia is near the "Ring of Fire" - the circle around the Pacific Ocean on which lie most of the world's active volcanoes above sea level.

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See also:

11 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
Indonesian volcano 'could erupt soon'
22 Jan 01 | Asia-Pacific
In pictures: Java volcano spews lava
05 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
The Earth's Ring of Fire
01 Apr 00 | Sci/Tech
Why volcanoes explode
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