Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Thousands Evacuated as Indonesia Volcano Rumbles


TANJUNG AUA, Indonesia (Reuters) - More than 25,000 panicked residents have been evacuated from the slopes of a volcano on Indonesia's Sumatra island and officials raised the alert level Wednesday as the mountain's activity intensified.

The heightened rumbling of Mount Talang has coincided with a string of moderate earthquakes on Sumatra, which is still recovering from a massive Dec. 26 quake and tsunami that killed nearly 130,000 people in Aceh province to the north.

"The status of Mount Talang is now at top alert," Surono, a vulcanologist from the Directorate of Vulcanology and Geophysics in the Java city of Bandung, told Reuters.

Local officials said 26,000 people had been evacuated from the slopes and areas around the 2,690 meter (9,825 ft) volcano in West Sumatra province, adding that number was likely to rise.

Witnesses saw sparks of fire coming out of Mount Talang early Wednesday morning. The volcano lies near the city of Padang, 528 miles northwest of Jakarta.

"It was like the end of the world," said Syafrudin, 65, a farmer, after fleeing from the mountainside and speaking outside a makeshift tent near the village of Tanjung Aua.

"I first heard the rumble and then the ground started shaking ... then there's smoke and sparks. We all ran in fear."

Vulcanologists said they could not confirm whether lava had actually spewed out. But smoke had billowed up to 1,000 meters (3,280 ft) high from the volcano's crater and ash had traveled up to 7.5 miles away, Surono said.

"The activity has definitely stepped up and we have alerted airport officials to watch out for smoke," Surono said.

Scientists have warned of increased seismic activity in Indonesia as the plates that make up the earth's crust adjust following the magnitude 9 earthquake in December that triggered massive tsunami waves across the Indian Ocean.

"The plates' movements release energy underground and the energy could add to the activity of many volcanoes on Sumatra but it doesn't mean this will trigger an eruption," said Surono.

"Coincidentally, the pressure inside Mount Talang had been high and the quake activity has increased that energy."


President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who has urged Indonesians not to see the spate of quakes and the December tsunami as a sign of more natural calamities to come, would visit the area later Wednesday, officials in Jakarta said.

Elvi Sahlan, deputy mayor of the town of Solok near the volcano, said many residents were frightened.

"Up till 2 o'clock this morning we have evacuated around 26,000 people from the surrounding areas and the number is likely to increase because there are many others who have not been evacuated," Sahlan said.

Many residents spent the night in makeshift tents on open fields while others took refuge at government buildings and sports stadiums in nearby towns.

"The whole family is stressed. It's better to be here now than to live in fear," said Yusmalidar, 40, who had just been evacuated in a government truck with his wife and three children.

One local official said there was a shortage of tents and water among residents.

The mountain first began rumbling Tuesday.

Indonesia -- but especially Sumatra -- has been hit by daily aftershocks since the massive earthquake on Dec. 26. A quake off Sumatra on March 28 killed at least 676 people, many on Nias island off Sumatra's west coast.

Indonesia is a vast archipelago of some 17,000 islands that lies along the geologically active "Pacific Ring of Fire" and has more than 100 active volcanoes.

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