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By Tomi Soetjipto

Written by: Staff

MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia, May 15 (Reuters) A pink bandana tied around his head and wearing a football T-shirt, 80-year-old Maridjan may cut an eccentric figure, but his views are key to whether people leave the slopes of Indonesia's most dangerous volcano.

Scientists say Mount Merapi could erupt massively at anytime and government officials have told residents in its vicinity to evacuate. But Maridjan is the spiritual keeper of the mountain and the cheery old man doesn't think the worst will happen soon.

Chain-smoking a Western brand of cigarette, Maridjan, often referred to as ''Mbah'' (leader), dismissed any suggestions the volcano -- already on the highest level of alert -- will erupt soon, despite huge clouds of hot gas billowing from the 3,000-metre volcano and the lava domes forming on its crater.

Maridjan is a symbol to villagers around Merapi, where Javanese mysticism and age-old traditions are defying logic and science.

He was assigned by the previous ruler of Yogyakarta, the late Sri Sultan Hamengkubuwono IX, as keeper of the mountain to look after the safety of villagers and Merapi's surroundings.

''Journalists have asked me 'When do you think Merapi will erupt' and I said why do you always expect the worst from Merapi.

Why can't you hope for the best? Merapi is giving so much blessing to the residents,'' Maridjan told Reuters in Javanese, his mother tongue.

His village in Kinahrejo lies just about six km (four miles) from Merapi's peak, well within the mandatory evacuation area. But his refusal to leave has prompted other residents to stay in the village, where natural omens and spiritual insight from Maridjan are valued more highly than vulcanologists' findings.

Merapi, which means ''Mountain of Fire'', has been rumbling for weeks and glistening orange lava has flowed occasionally from its crater in recent days.

TRUSTED BY THE SULTAN Although the governor of Yogyakarta, Hamengkubuwono X, the direct descendant of the Hamengkubuwono IX, has ordered mandatory evacuation, Maridjan insisted that he has been trusted by the late Sultan to ''keep'' Merapi and he vowed not break the duty as long as there is no sign to break that pledge.

More Reuters AK RS0935

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