JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesia raised the alert status of the Mount Merapi volcano to the highest level on Saturday, prompting a compulsory evacuation of thousands of residents living on the slopes, officials said.
"This morning we raised the status of Merapi to the top alert, which is the red code. Every resident has been ordered to evacuate," Subandrio, head of the Merapi section at the Center for Volcanological Research and Technology Development, told Reuters.
Residents said they could see lava flowing and thick smoke rising from Merapi, one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the Pacific "Ring of Fire" that has been rumbling for weeks.
"I could see the lava clearly from my home this morning. Then they ordered us to evacuate our village," said Anton, a 25-year-old resident of Boyong village, around 8 km (5 miles) from Merapi.
Television footage showed lava flowing out of the crater while thick clouds of smoke rose upwards and a large fireball burst into the night sky.
Despite the increased seismic activity and the lava which had flowed around 1.6 km (1 mile) from the volcano's crater, Subandrio could not say when the volcano was likely to erupt.
Dali, another vulcanologist, told Reuters the top alert -- also known as code red or 'danger' status -- meant that technically the mountain could erupt within the next 24 hours.
Merapi, which means "Mountain of Fire," lies near the ancient city of Yogyakarta at the center of densely populated Java island. It killed 70 people in a 1994 eruption and 1,300 in 1930.
ARMY AND POLICE INVOLVED
Government officials along with army and police evacuated more than 5,000 people living near the volcano to tents and shelters in safe areas following the new alert level.
"Everything ran smoothly, just like the exercises we used to have before. They have evacuated us to the village office," one local resident told Reuters by telephone.
The local government has been struggling to conduct mass evacuation as some villagers living on the slopes refuse to be moved because they rely on natural signs rather official orders.
Residents say signals would include lightning around the mountain's peak or animals moving down its slopes.
"We have prepared tents and shelters for 5,000 people. Most villagers have been notified about the latest status," Susilo Purwanto, an official at the disaster management unit in Sleman regency near Merapi, told Reuters.
Another official at a Merapi evacuation post said the evacuation process was going according to plan.
"So far, we have not faced any significant problem during the evacuation process. We are first evacuating the elderly and children," Hery Prawoto told Reuters.
"We got a lot of help from the military and local businesses."
Television footage showed woman and children being moved in trucks, with their belongings wrapped in bundles of cloth.
Indonesia, which has the world's highest density of volcanoes, had already moved thousands of people away from Merapi, but officials put the total number of residents on and near the mountain at around 14,000.
Most Javanese villagers consider the mountain sacred. Every year a priest climbs to the top to make an offering.
Many Indonesians also see activity in Mount Merapi as an omen of looming political unrest. Merapi is also close to Borobudur, a 1,200-year-old temple complex that is one of Indonesia's most famous tourist sites.
Thousands of villagers were evacuated in January 1997 when Merapi became active, just months before the Asian financial crisis struck.
Most Javanese, who make up the bulk of Indonesia's 220 million people, are Muslim, but many cling to a spiritual past and believe a supernatural kingdom exists on top of Merapi.