MOUNT KELUD, Indonesia (AP) – More than 25,000 villagers were refusing to leave their homes on the slopes of a killer Indonesian volcano today despite warnings by scientists the peak was poised for a powerful eruption, officials said.

“They believe it will not erupt,” said Sigit Raharjo, a spokesman for the local government close to Mount Kelud in the heart of the country’s densely populated Java island. “They are being very foolish. All we can do is ask them to leave.”

Kelud – one of more than 100 active volcanoes in Indonesia – has been on the highest alert level for more than two weeks, but on Saturday recorded a spike in activity that led scientists to wrongly declare an eruption had begun.

Scores of people, including women hauling babies in slings, descended from the mountain in police trucks and on bicycles and motorcycles. Some were in tears.

“I am afraid because the authorities say this eruption will be worse than the ones that have come before,” said Marsini, resident of a village three miles from the crater. “They say there may be poisonous gas. I am leaving now.”

Despite the exodus, Raharjo said only some 12,000 out of about 38,000 people living within six miles of the peak had moved into tent camps or government buildings a safe distance from the volcano. In 1990, Mt. Kelud killed more than 30 people and injured hundreds. In 1919, a powerful explosion that could be heard hundreds of miles away destroyed dozens of villages and killed at least 5,160.

Scientists fear a buildup of magma under Kelud’s crater lake could trigger a violent blast, sending a torrent of mud, ash and rock careering down the side of the 5,679-foot mountain.

But they also note any eruption could be small – or may not happen at all.

On Saturday, the peak recorded nonstop volcanic tremors and a surge in temperature at its lake. Monitors fled their observation posts convinced an eruption had begun, but were unable to visually confirm it because the peak was shrouded in fog. They later said it had not erupted. It was not clear Sunday whether they had returned to their posts.

For weeks, authorities have pleaded with villagers to move to tent camps or government buildings, but have faced resistance. Many people have insisted on staying behind to tend to crops or look after their houses.

Some apparently believe a local myth, which says that if residents turn off all the lights and speak softly, then the mountain won’t erupt.

Indonesia is spread across 17,500 islands and is prone to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes because of its location within the “Ring of Fire” – a series of fault lines stretching from the Western Hemisphere through Japan and Southeast Asia.

At least three volcanoes are currently erupting elsewhere in the country, including Mount Anak Krakatau, which lies off the northern tip of Java island. The mountain was formed after the famous Krakatau volcano erupted in 1883, killing thousands, but it is not seen as at risk of a major blast.

AP-ES-11-03-07 2340EDT


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