Indonesia volcano eruption death toll hits 25

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The death toll following the eruption of Indonesia's Mount Merapi volcano has risen to 25, officials say, amid fears of fresh eruptions.

Experts told the BBC that the ash levels had subsided a little, but that their readings suggested there would be more volcanic activity soon.

Thousands fled their homes on Tuesday as ash spewed out of the volcano, turning the landscape white.

But many people refused to leave, and rescuers fear the death toll may rise.

One rescuer, Christian Awuy, told the BBC that he feared up to 50 could have been killed.

Many people ignored the initial warnings and stayed behind, reluctant to leave their properties and livestock.

Mr Awuy said about 10,000 people had been evacuated to makeshift shelters with straw sleeping mats and bags of clothes and food.

The BBC's Rachel Harvey, who is at the scene, says people are also trying to return to their homes.

She says farmers, particularly young men, are returning to the volcano's slopes to check on their livestock and property.

Although an exclusion zone has been set up around the volcano there are lots of small lanes that give access to the slopes, and this is making it very difficult for the authorities to keep track of people, our correspondent says.

Endita Sri Andiyanti, a spokeswoman at the main local hospital, said 25 people were dead and more than a dozen others were being treated for injuries including severe burns.

A two-month-old baby was among the dead.

The man known as the volcano's spiritual gatekeeper, Mbah or grandfather Marijan, was also found dead in his house about 4km (2.5 miles) from the summit.

For many Javanese, Merapi is a sacred site. Marijan was appointed by the nearby ruler to mediate with the spirits of the mountain.

Eyewitnesses say the area is covered by a layer of dust.

A cameraman for Reuters was quoted as saying: "Several houses and cattle have been burned by the hot cloud from the mountain. All the houses are blanketed in ash, completely white. The leaves have been burned off the trees."

Government vulcanologist Subandrio told the BBC's Karishma Vaswani in Jakarta that the volcanic activity appeared to have subsided based on the recordings of the levels of hot ash in the air.

However, he said he expected more eruptions soon, although there was no way of telling when or how big they would be.

Another vulcanologist, Ed Venski of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, told the BBC's World Today that pressure building up under a "lava dome" inside the volcano threatened further devastation.

"This the largest hazard at Merapi. It builds up as a sticky lava, where it builds up into a dome.

"At some point either there's an explosion from below that causes it to collapse, or a simple addition of lava causes it to collapse. And this sends large, hot blocks of solidified lava down the slopes," he said.

This "pyroclastic flow" is highly dangerous both in its heat and the poison of the gases.

Experts hope the volcano, some 500km (310 miles) south-east of Jakarta on Indonesia's most heavily populated island, Java, will release steam slowly rather than erupt in a big blast.

'Three explosions'

On Monday, officials monitoring the volcano had raised the alert for Mt Merapi to the highest possible level. It erupted just before dusk on Tuesday.

Since then, more than 600 volcanic earthquakes have been recorded around the mountain.

"We heard three explosions around 1800 (1100 GMT) spewing volcanic material as high as 1.5km (one mile) and sending heat clouds down the slopes," government vulcanologist Surono told AFP.

He said this eruption was more powerful than the volcano's last blast in 2006, which killed two people.

In 1930 another powerful eruption wiped out 13 villages, killing more than 1,000 people.