Volcano travel chaos as ash grounds flights to Indonesia

Nov 30, -0001
YOGYAKARTA: International airlines cancelled dozens of flights to Indonesia on Sunday as Mount Merapi volcano spewed ash high into the sky, ahead of a visit by US President Barack Obama.

Airlines cancelled 50 flights on Sunday and 36 flights on Saturday, in an echo of events in Iceland earlier this year when volcanic ash led to thousands of cancellations and transport chaos across Europe.

The death toll from a series of eruptions since October 26 is expected to climb as more bodies are pulled from the volcanic sludge that thundered down on central Java on Friday, the volcano's biggest eruption since the 1870s.

"Fifty flights to and from Jakarta from 15 airlines have been cancelled today for safety reasons, they are mostly flights which pass through Singapore," Soekarno-Hatta International Airport spokesman Sudaryanto said.

The airlines affected include Singapore Airlines, Air Asia, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Malaysia Airlines, Turkish Airlines and Lufthansa.

The spokesman said Jakarta airport, which handles around 900 flights per day, remained open.

The volcano also affected flights to Yogyakarta, Solo and Bandung, cities closer to Merapi in the centre of the main island of Java. Thousands of passengers have been left stranded.

"We called three airlines but all the seats were booked," said Singaporean Raymond Yong, 34, whose Singapore-bound Lufthansa flight was cancelled from Jakarta.

"I don't understand why the airlines have to cancel flights when there are others which are operating just fine. I have to work tomorrow and this is such a major inconvenience."

Three Malaysian Air Force Hercules C-130 transport aircraft flew to Yogyakarta to collect 664 Malaysians stranded there, in a series of flights to take place Saturday and Sunday.

Obama is scheduled to arrive in Jakarta on Tuesday for a highly anticipated -- and twice delayed -- visit. White House officials said Saturday there was no sign so far of any disruption to the schedule.

Mount Merapi first started erupting on October 26 and a violent blow-out on Friday killed nearly 80 people, incinerating villages up to 18 kilometres away.

Pyroclastic flows or heat clouds of boiling hot gas and rock travelling hundreds of kilometres an hour killed people in their sleep, leaving smouldering ruins full of bodies.

The country's disaster management agency said Sunday the overall death toll from the disaster had been revised down to 117, but it warned the toll would climb as rescuers reached stricken villages.

"The death toll will clearly rise as rescuers are still looking for bodies in the villages," the agency's spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho told AFP.

The volcano, a sacred landmark in Javanese tradition, continued to spew clouds of gas and ash on Sunday.

It is 430 kilometres (270 miles) east of Jakarta but only 26 kilometres north of Central Java provincial capital Yogyakarta.

"The eruptions continue to pose a big threat to residents," volcanologist Budi Santoso said.

Dozens of people from one of the worst-hit villages were to be buried in a mass grave in Yogyakarta, disaster management spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said.

"We will bury them in a place where it's safe. There's no way we will have the burial in their village, as the village is within the 20-kilometre danger zone," he said.

More than 166,000 people are living in cramped temporary shelters after being ordered to evacuate from a 20-kilometre "danger zone", though many were reluctant to abandon their properties and livestock.

The Indonesian archipelago has dozens of active volcanoes and straddles major tectonic fault lines known as the "ring of fire" from the Indian to the Pacific oceans.

The authorities are also dealing with the aftermath of a tsunami which smashed into villages on the remote Mentawai island chain on October 25, killing more than 400 people. AGENCIES







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