Indonesians pressured to leave rumbling volcano

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NGANCAR, Indonesia, Oct 19 (Reuters) Indonesian authorities urged residents not to return to their homes near a volcano in eastern Java after experts warned today that Mount Kelud was still liable to erupt. Many locals have dug in and are trying to stay put despite an order to evacuate a 10-km (6 mile) zone around the 1,731-metre (5,712-foot) volcano, one of Indonesia's deadliest.

The order to evacuate more than 100,000 people was made after an alert on the volcano, 675 km east of the capital Jakarta but only 90 km southwest of Indonesia's second-largest city of Surabaya, was raised to maximum late on Tuesday.

The head of Indonesia's Centre for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation, who is monitoring Kelud from a post 7.5 km away, said that activity at the volcano had increased mid-afternoon before calming again.

''There were constant tremors, which could not be counted at 3 p.m. (1330 ist), so I urged everyone to leave the post,'' said Surono, who uses one name like many Indonesians and is the country's top volcano expert.

''There are not so many quakes anymore and we are staying here. I am the captain of the ship so I shouldn't leave.'' The number of volcanic quakes has fallen in recent days from more than 500 on Tuesday, although officials said this did not necessarily mean that an eruption would not occur.

Around 400 police in Ngancar district near the volcano tried last night to escort people to shelters.

''We turned off the lights so that the police thought we had left,'' said Sugiyem, a 30 year-old from Sugihwaras, a village 8 km from the crater that suffered casualties and was badly damaged during an eruption in 1990.

''I am afraid of the mountain erupting but so far there have been no signs,'' she added, referring to a common local belief about natural phenomena pointing to an eruption.

''The trees near the crater are still green, animals such as monkeys, snakes and hogs haven't come down. Also, there are stars in the sky. If the mountain erupts, it will be cloudy.'' Sugiyem and her family were, however, finally made to leave by police.

Saut Simatupang, another official at vulcanology centre, said earlier that the volcano's normally green crater lake was still partly white in colour, indicating the presence of sulphur.

''We cannot tell when it will erupt. It (the alert) is still on the highest level.'' Despite the pressure to evacuate, many locals have been reluctant to leave possessions untended and have complained about inadequate food and shelter provided in safer zones.

An estimated 350,000 people live within 10 km of the volcano and when it last erupted in 1990 at least 30 people were killed.

In 1919, about 5,000 died as Kelud ejected scalding water from its crater lake.

Indonesia, which sits on a belt of intense seismic activity known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, has had a series of major volcanic eruptions over the centuries.

REUTERS ARB RK1630

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