Villagers forced to leave as volcano erupts again

INDONESIA’S military forced villagers off the slopes of the country’s most volatile volcano yesterday as it unleashed a new powerful explosion that claimed another victim and temporarily shut down an airport.

Troops stood guard in front of ash-covered homes and local television showed one woman who refused evacuation orders being pinned to a stretcher as she screamed and cried in protest.

Meanwhile, hundreds of miles to the west, aid workers were struggling to deliver food and other supplies to desperate survivors on islands hardest hit by a tsunami.

The twin catastrophes, striking earlier in the week at different ends of the seismically active country, have killed at least 449 people in total and hundreds more are missing.

All but 36 of the deaths were in the tsunami zone, where more than 700 homes were destroyed by a towering wave on Monday that left at least 23,000 people homeless, said Suryadi, a Crisis Centre official.

Government agencies have been forced to pull back boats and helicopters that had been ferrying food and other vital supplies to the most distant corners of the Mentawai islands because of stormy weather and rough seas.

They were hoping for a break in the weather yesterday to airdrop boxes of aid from planes.

But on a borrowed 75ft cruiser, a private group of aid workers – battling sheets of rain and miserable seasickness – on Friday succeeded in reaching some villages that had not received any help since the tsunami hit.

Dozens of injured survivors languished at an overwhelmed hospital yesterday.

“We need doctors, specialists,” nurse Anputra said at the tiny hospital in Pagai Utara – one of the four main islands in the Mentawai chain slammed by the tsunami, which was triggered by a 7.7-magnitude earthquake.

The death toll from the tsunami rose yesterday to 413 as officials found more bodies, and 163 people are still missing and feared swept out to sea.

On the country’s main island of Java, meanwhile, the rumbling Mount Merapi volcano erupted once again early yesterday.

Some villagers refused to leave their homes along the mountainside’s fertile slopes, saying they wanted to check on their livestock and protect their homes, and the military was called in to help evacuate the area.

A 35-year-old woman died during a chaotic evacuation, bringing the death toll since the first big blast on Tuesday to 36, the Indonesian Red Cross said.

Yesterday`s powerful 21-minute eruption briefly forced the closure of the airport in the nearby city of Yogyakarta, 12 miles south of the volcano.

At least 47,000 people who live around Mount Merapi are staying in government camps or with friends and relatives, the National Disaster Management Agency said, and officials have warned it would be some time before life returns to normal.