Indonesia's most volatile volcano — one of 22 that have been increasingly active — spewed searing clouds of gas and debris for hours Monday in its most powerful eruption in a deadly week. No new casualties were immediately reported.
The new blast came as Indonesia struggles to respond to a tsunami that devastated a remote chain of islands. The twin disasters, unfolding simultaneously on opposite ends of the seismically active country, have killed nearly 500 people and severely tested the government's emergency response network. In both events, the military has been called in to help.
Mount Merapi, one of 129 active volcanoes in Indonesia, has killed 38 since it started a week ago. It has erupted many times in the last two centuries, often with deadly results. In 1994, 60 people were killed, while in 1930, more than a dozen villages were incinerated, leaving up to 1,300 dead.
Almost all villagers living along Mount Merapi's once-fertile slopes — now blanketed by gray ash — have been evacuated to crowded refugee camps well away from the base, some screaming and crying as they were carried away by camouflaged soldiers.
During lulls in activity, some have returned to their homes to check on livestock and crops, but there were no indications any had been hurt in Monday's blast, said Waluyo Rahardjo, a National Search and Rescue Agency official.
The eruption was accompanied by several deafening explosions.
As massive clouds spilled from the glowing cauldron and billowed into the air — continuing for nearly three hours after the blast — debris and ash cascaded nearly four miles (six kilometers) down the southeastern slopes, said Subrandrio, an official charged with monitoring Merapi's activity.
More than 800 miles (1,300 kilometers) 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 had reached 450 by Monday, said Nelis Zuliastri from the National Disaster Management Agency, with the number of missing now less than 100.
A military chopper had evacuated badly injured survivors Sunday who had languished in an overwhelmed hospital with only paracetamol to ease their pain, said Ade Edward, a disaster management official. Among them was a baby girl born in a shelter after the tsunami and a 12-year-old girl with a life-threatening chest wound.
Indonesia, a vast island nation of 235 million people, straddles a series of fault lines and volcanoes known as the Pacific "Ring of Fire" and is prone to earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.
The fault line in the earth's surface that caused last week's 7.7-magnitude earthquake and killer wave that followed — and also the 2004 tsunami that killed 230,000 people in a dozen countries — is the meeting point of the Eurasian and Pacific tectonic plates that have been pushing against and under each other for millions of years, causing huge stresses to build up. It runs the length of the west coast of Sumatra island,
Both earthquakes and volcanos can be related to movements in the overlapping plates that form the earth's crust. As plates slide against or under each other, molten rock from the layer of mantle can break the surface via a volcano, or create energy released in an earthquake.
There is some debate as to whether earthquakes can trigger volcanic eruptions. But with Merapi's eruption 24 hours after that tremor, the government wasn't taking chances.
It has raised alert levels of 21 other volcanoes — many of which have shown an increase in activity, rumbling and belching out heavy black ash — to the second- and third- highest levels in the last two months, mostly as a precaution, said Syamsul Rizal, a state volcanologist.
Indonesia has several volcanos smoldering at any given time, but another government volcanologist Gede Swantika said there are normally only five to 10 on the third-highest alert level, indicating an increase in seismic and other activity, and none at all at the second-highest, signifying an eruption is possible within two weeks. He said monitors noticed more volcanos were exhibiting seismic activity starting Sept. 2.
"We can say this is quite extraordinary, about 20 at the same time," Swantika said. "We have to keep an eye on those mountains. ... But I cannot say or predict which will erupt. What we can do is monitor patterns."
Geologist Brent McInnes said as he hadn't seen the raw data but would find such a rash of volcanic activity significant.
"If it's true that there are over 20 volcanos demonstrating increased levels of seismic activity, then that is something we should pay attention to," said McInnes, a professor at Australia's Curtin University who has done extensive volcanic research in Indonesia.
He said such an increase could indicate "maybe there is a major plate restructuring going on, and that would be significant."
Associated Press writers Achmad Ibrahim in the Mentawai islands and Niniek Karmini, Irwan Firdaus, Ali Kotarumalos and Kristen Gelineau in Jakarta contributed to this report.