Thousands flee as molten lava begins to flow from Java volcano

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Indonesian authorities are preparing to evacuate thousands of people as lava began flowing from the crater of the country's most active volcano.

Gunung Merapi, or Fiery Mountain, has been rumbling for weeks, with scientists on alert for an imminent eruption. Lava started pouring down its slopes early yesterday, but stopped a few miles from inhabited areas. Merapi is one of the most dangerous volcanoes in the Pacific "Ring of Fire", a series of fault lines stretching through Japan and south-east Asia. Seventy people died when it erupted in 1994. In 1930, an eruption claimed 1,300 lives.

Scientists have yet to raise the threat level to the highest alert, which would require the immediate evacuation of villages on Merapi's fertile slopes and foothills. But the lava flows and burning around the crater suggest that pressure within the volcano is reaching a critical point. "The volcano has shown significantly more activity," said Subandriyo, the head of the local monitoring office.

An estimated 14,000 people live in Merapi's shadow, and most are still there, reluctant to abandon property and livestock. They plan to stay until forced to leave, or until nature sends them signals, such as lightning around the peak or animals moving down the slopes.

About 1,300 people have already been moved out of the danger zone, mainly women, children and the elderly. Local officials say that some are returning to their homes during the day to feed livestock.

The lava flows began as first a powerful under-sea earthquake measuring 6 on the Richter scale and then an aftershock hit the South Pacific islands of Tonga. But the earthquakes caused no damage.

They came a day after a larger quake in Tonga sparked a tsunami alert. The alert, issued by a monitoring centre in Hawaii, was lifted after two hours, but the incident exposed deficiencies in a system intended to prevent the devastating death toll of the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.

Tonga itself did not receive the warning because of a power failure, while in Fiji only people living on the main island were alerted; those on the other 110 islands remained unaware. In New Zealand, hundreds of people on the east coast fled their homes for higher ground after watching television reports, although no evacuation had been ordered.