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As Indonesia reels, volcano erupts again

21 more rumble; monitoring teams raise alert levels

Mount Merapi, which started erupting a week ago, spewed volcanic smoke yesterday. Mount Merapi, which started erupting a week ago, spewed volcanic smoke yesterday. (Irwin Fedriansyah/ Associated Press)
By Slamet Riyadi
Associated Press / November 2, 2010

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MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia — Deafening explosions of hot gas rattled evacuees miles from an Indonesian volcano yesterday, the latest eruption in a deadly week. The country reported increased rumblings at 21 other active volcanoes, raising questions about what’s causing the uptick along some of the world’s most volatile fault lines.

No casualties were reported in Mount Merapi’s new blast, which occurred as Indonesia struggles to respond to an earthquake-generated tsunami that devastated a remote chain of islands.

The two disasters unfolding on opposite ends of the country have killed nearly 500 people and strained the government’s emergency response network. In both events, the military has been called in to help.

Merapi has killed 38 people since it started erupting a week ago. Monitoring officials have also raised alert levels at some of the 129 active volcanoes in Indonesia, with two under watch for possible eruption within two weeks and 19 showing increased activity — more than double the usual number on the watch list, an official said.

Indonesia, a vast archipelago of 235 million people, is prone to earthquakes and volcanoes because it sits along the Pacific “Ring of Fire,’’ a horseshoe-shaped string of faults that lines the western and eastern Pacific.

Scientists could not say for certain what was causing the increased volcanic activity, though two theorized that the earth’s tectonic plates could be realigning and one noted growing evidence that volcanoes can affect one other.

About 69,000 villagers have been evacuated from the area around Merapi’s once-fertile slopes — now blanketed by gray ash — in central Java, 250 miles east of Jakarta, the capital.

Booming explosions sounded during yesterday’s eruption, which shot massive clouds from the glowing cauldron and sent ash cascading nearly 4 miles down the southeastern slopes, said an official in charge of monitoring Merapi’s activity.

Even in the crowded government camps, miles away from the mountain, the sound of the explosions sent evacuees scurrying for shelter.

More than 800 miles to the west, meanwhile, a C-130 transport plane, six helicopters, and four motorized boats were ferrying aid to the most distant corners of the Mentawai Islands, where last week’s tsunami destroyed hundreds of homes, schools, churches, and mosques. The tsunami death toll stood at 431 yesterday, the National Disaster Management Agency said on its website.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said relief efforts must be sped up, expressing dismay that it took days for aid to reach the isolated islands, but acknowledged that violent storms were largely to blame.

Last week’s killer wave was triggered by a 7.7-magnitude earthquake along the same fault that caused the 2004 temblor and tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries. The fault line, which runs the length of the west coast of Sumatra island, is the meeting point of two of the earth’s dozen major plates, which have been pushing against and under one another for millions of years, causing huge stresses to build up.

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