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17 July 2011

Authorities: Indonesian volcano could still erupt

Image: AP

TOMOHON, Indonesia (AP) — The threat of further eruptions at an Indonesian volcano remains high despite a slowdown in activity over the last 24 hours, a government volcanologist said Sunday, as thousands of villagers insisted on returning to the danger zone.

Mount Lokon, located in northern Sulawesi province, unleashed its first powerful eruption late Thursday, followed by two blasts early Friday, sending thousands of panicked residents racing down its fiery slopes.

More than 33,000 people live along the mountain's fertile slopes, but many of those with homes within the danger zone were moved before the triple eruptions.

One woman died of a heart attack as she fled, but there were no other casualties reported.

The alert level at the 5,741-foot (1,750-meter) mountain was raised to its highest level a week ago following a series of small eruptions.

More than 5,200 evacuees are packed in crowded government camps away from the fiery crater and appear out of danger from another eruption, while nearly 1,000 others have fled to relatives' houses, local disaster official Darwis Sitinjak said Sunday.

But there has been no major activity since three minor eruptions Saturday, making it difficult to convince evacuees to remain in makeshift refugee shelters near Mount Lokon's base, said Surono, a senior government volcanologist.

"We urged people to keep stay clear of the crater," said Surono, who like many Indonesians uses only one name. "We are still in a situation of high alert."

Many of those forced to evacuate were insisting on returning to their homes in Mount Lokon's danger zone.

"We need to tend our crops and animals," said Ronald Pelealu, one of thousands of evacuees from Kinilow village.

Mount Lokon is one of Indonesia's 129 active volcanoes. Its last major eruption in 1991 killed a Swiss hiker and forced thousands of people to flee their homes.

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 Pacific Ocean.