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Indonesians return to volcano slopes

Farmers cite fear for crops, animals

MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia -- Hundreds of poor farmers concerned about their crops and livestock returned to the slopes of Indonesia's ash-spewing Mount Merapi yesterday, a day after fleeing its biggest eruption .

A monitoring station counted dozens of lava bursts and nine small emissions of gas from Indonesia's most dangerous volcano, the official Antara news agency reported.

A thin layer of gray ash covered crops and village rooftops.

But there was nothing yesterday comparable to Thursday's burst, which sent billowing gray clouds of hot ash 3.5 miles down the slope, and farmers said they felt at greater risk of losing their livelihood than their lives.

``The volcano appears to be calming down. I think the real danger has passed," Haryono, a rice and fruit farmer, said as he trudged to his village. ``I have to get back to my fields and watch over my house."

Indonesia's most dangerous mountain has been venting steam and debris for more than a month. Merapi's lava dome has swelled, raising concerns it could collapse suddenly and send deadly, scalding clouds of fast-moving gas, rocks, and debris into populated areas.

More than 20,000 people packed their belongings last month and headed to camps set up in schools, mosques, and government offices after authorities urged residents living near the 9,700-foot peak to evacuate.

Thousands who refused to heed earlier orders fled Thursday, some jumping into rivers to escape the searing heat and others sprinting down the mountain or speeding off in cars and trucks.

Some scientists say a massive May 27 earthquake that killed more than 5,700 people in an area 25 miles south of Merapi may have contributed to the mountain's volatility in recent weeks.

A major eruption would strain earthquake relief operations severely in nearby Bantul and Klaten districts, authorities said. More than a half-million people were displaced by last month's quake.

``If there's a large blast at Merapi that causes deaths and injuries, we'll need help from paramedics now deployed in the quake zone -- especially with severe burns," said Imam Purwadi, a government official overseeing relief efforts at both sites.

Still, official worries did little to keep residents from the volcano's danger zone.

``If I stay at a shelter, who will care for my animals?" said Adi Wiyono, 45. ``I am afraid, but they are the source of my life. My family depends on them."

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