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Indonesia battles disasters on two fronts

by Staff Writers
North Pagai, Indonesia (AFP) Oct 30, 2010
Indonesia struggled with twin disasters Saturday as the death toll from a tsunami topped 400 and the archipelago's most active volcano erupted again, spreading panic and ash over a vast area.

Rescuers were battling bad weather and logistical challenges to deliver aid to remote islands off the coast of Sumatra where a major earthquake triggered a tsunami on Monday, wiping out entire villages and killing at least 408 people.

Hundreds of kilometres (miles) to the east on Java island, the Mount Merapi volcano thundered back to life around 1:00 am (1800 GMT) in the latest frightening explosion since an eruption killed 34 people on Tuesday.

The two disasters have displaced more than 60,000 people -- 13,000 on the tsunami-stricken Mentawai islands and around 50,000 in central Java where a 10-kilometre (six mile) exclusion zone has been set up around the volcano.

Aid workers said the tsunami wiped out at least 10 villages, mainly along the ocean-facing beaches of North and South Pagai islands, and officials fear the final toll could exceed 600.

Aid had started to be dropped from helicopters on Friday, but aviation fuel shortages, stormy weather and poor communications on the largely undeveloped Mentawais were hampering the relief effort.

"We've started sending relief supplies, which are still limited but enough for the people to survive," national search and rescue spokesman Gagah Prakoso said.

Many victims were sucked out to sea as the tsunami receded and have already been buried by their loved ones. Others remain unclaimed under fallen trees or rotting in piles of mangled debris.

Survivors in a village reached by an AFP photographer said as many as 30 of the community's 100 children had been killed. One man complained they still had not received any assistance from the government.

"The relief from the government is very late. We still haven't received anything," he said.

The wall of water was around three metres (10 feet) high and roared into the little coastal communities without warning, smashing schools, mosques and flimsy traditional houses up to 500 metres inland.

Dave Jenkins of independent health agency SurfAid International, which is based in the Mentawais, said bad weather was making a "severely challenging situation... a lot worse".

"We need to keep people alive, warm and fed, and fight disease outbreaks. After that we can move into the reconstruction phase," he said.

"It's challenging and people need to coordinate much better."

The latest official death toll from the tsunami, triggered by a 7.7-magnitude quake, stood at 408, with 303 still listed as missing. Officials said as many as 200 of the missing were not expected to be found alive.

In central Java, soldiers and police posted nearest the volcano fled Saturday morning's eruption along with hundreds of ordinary people, who quickly clogged roads with cars and motorcycles as black soot fell across a vast area.

"My neighbours told me to leave and my village is already empty -- everyone has fled," said 42-year-old resident Mukinem, who was heading away from the volcano on a motorcycle with her husband and two young children.

"I heard several sounds like thunder. I was so scared I was shaking."

Government volcanologist Subandrio said the new eruption was another reminder that 2,914-metre Mount Merapi, which means "Mountain of Fire", remained "extremely dangerous".

He said the government had to be "more serious" about enforcing the exclusion zone amid persistent reports of people leaving displacement camps to tend to their livestock on the mountain's slopes.

"We will even have to evaluate whether we need to widen the exclusion zone because we should not downplay the threat -- Mount Merapi is extremely dangerous," he said.

Australia has announced assistance of about one million US dollars while the European Commission released 1.5 million euros (two million dollars) in aid.

"Indonesia is currently addressing a multitude of emergencies, whose cumulative impact is putting local capacity under severe strain," European aid chief Kristalina Georgieva said.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said the United Nations stood ready to assist. The United States and several Asian countries have also offered help.

The Indonesian archipelago is studded with scores of active volcanoes and stretches from the Pacific to the Indian oceans, spanning several tectonic plates.

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