Fri, 11 Jun 2004

Major eruption shakes Mt Awu, more evacuated

Jongker Rumthe and Fitri Wulandari, Manado/Jakarta

A major eruption again shook Mount Awu on Sangihe Island, North Sulawesi, on Thursday, hurling stones and spewing smoke and hot ash, officials said.

No casualties were reported, as some 29,000 villagers living on the slopes of the 1,320 meter volcano had already been evacuated to safety.

Volcanologist Syamsulrizal said the eruption occurred at 5:29 a.m., shooting ash, volcanic rubble and rock about 3,000 m high.

"The eruption was the biggest in the last four days. Mount Awu erupted on June 7, 8 and 9, but those were smaller," he told The Jakarta Post by phone from an observatory post on the mountain.

He said the rock and rubble fell back onto the slopes, but the smoke and ash were carried up to 700 m on prevailing winds.

Local villagers said a shower of ash continued to fall in Tahuna, the main town on Sangihe.

Syamsulrizal warned of further major eruptions in the next few days, as the volcano had shown increasing activity. "Therefore, we will maintain the 'red alert' status for Mount Awu."

He also warned evacuated villagers not to return to their homes in danger zones.

"Many other people who ignored the evacuation order and remained danger zones fled to safer areas upon hearing the bigger eruption today (Thursday)," he said.

Sangihe administration spokesman Ferdinand Fenas said refugees of the volcano numbered some 29,000: 22,000 from 23 hamlets in danger zones and 7,000 others from unthreatened areas in Tahuna and nearby districts.

"The number of refugees has soared because people from non- danger areas have also fled in fear," he said.

A light coating of ash from the mountain, which lies just south of the Philippines' Mindanao Island, has covered local beaches and villages.

The volcano last erupted in October 1992, and had a major eruption in August 1966, killing 40 people and forcing thousands of others to flee.

In East Java, Mount Bromo, a popular tourist spot in Probolinggo regency, suddenly erupted on Tuesday, killing a Singaporean hiker and an Indonesian tourist and injuring five others.

The victims were hit by a shower of hot rocks expelled by the 2,392 m volcano, which sent a plume of smoke 3,000 m into the air.

Bromo's eruption has raised questions among the public, as volcanologists had not issued any warning beforehand.

Hendrasto, head of the national volcanology agency for East Java and Central Java, said on Wednesday the eruption was unpredictable because seismographs did not detect any preliminary quakes that would indicate a possible eruption.

However, Geology and Mineral Resources Director-General Simon Sembiring at the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources admitted volcanic monitoring in Indonesia was underdeveloped, due to lack of proper equipment and highly trained experts.

"The number of observatories does not yet meet the minimum standard because of a limited budget for improving equipment and human resources," he said in Jakarta on Thursday.

Echoing Simon's statement, Volcanology and Disaster Management Director Yousana O.P. Siagian said only 70 observatories existed nationwide and were manned by only 140 experts and staffers.

Simon said five to six of the country's 129 active volcanoes erupted every year, while six to nine others raise an alert daily.

Yousana said the office only received an annual budget of only Rp 2.5 billion to finance its operation, not nearly enough to procure a full set of advanced monitoring equipment. He is proposing a Rp 80 billion budget to upgrade volcanology equipment and facilities.

Indonesia sits on the Pacific Rim of Fire, which is known for its high level of volcanic and seismic activity, and has more active volcanoes than any other nation in the world.