- Associated Press - Monday, November 1, 2010

MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesia’s most dangerous volcano forced international airlines to cancel flights to nearby airports Tuesday, as fiery lava lit the rumbling mountain’s cauldron and plumes of smoke blackened the sky.

Scientists warned that the slow eruption could continue for weeks, like a “marathon, not a sprint.”

No casualties were reported in Mount Merapi’s latest blasts, which came as Indonesia struggled to respond to an earthquake-generated tsunami that devastated a remote chain of islands last week. The two disasters in separate parts of the country have killed nearly 470 people and strained the government’s emergency response network.

Indonesia, a vast archipelago of 235 million people, is prone to earthquakes and volcanos because it sits along the Pacific “Ring of Fire,” a horseshoe-shaped string of faults that lines the Pacific.

Merapi has killed 38 people in the last week and prompted the government Tuesday to order airlines to choose routes circumventing the towering dark ash on takeoff and landing.

Malaysian budget airline AirAsia and Singapore’s SilkAir responded by suspending several international flights to Yogyakarta and Solo, both within 20 miles of the crater and popular hopping points to the famed 9th century Borobudur temples.

Both airlines expected to resume operations soon.

There have been more than 10 large eruptions at Merapi since the first big explosion on Oct. 26, including a violent burst Monday that appeared to ease pressure inside the crater by creating a vent for magma to escape.

Three much smaller eruptions followed Tuesday.

“There’s no way of knowing for sure, of course,” said Safari Dwiyono, a volcanologist who has observed the mountain for more than 15 years. “But based on what we’ve seen in the last few days, we’re hoping there won’t be a massive explosion. It’s looking like we’re in for a marathon, not a sprint.”

The nearly 70,000 villagers evacuated from the area around Merapi’s once-fertile slopes — now blanketed by gray ash — have been told they could be expected to stay in crowded government camps at least three more weeks.

More than 800 miles to the west, a C-130 transport plane, six helicopters and four boats were ferrying aid to the most distant corners of the Mentawai islands, where last week’s tsunami destroyed hundreds of homes, schools, churches and mosques. The tsunami death toll stood at 431 on Monday, the National Disaster Management Agency said.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said relief efforts must be sped up, expressing dismay that it took days for aid to reach the isolated islands, though he acknowledged that violent storms were largely to blame.

The fault line that spawned the killer wave — and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami — is the meeting point of two of the Earth’s dozen major plates, which have been pushing against and under each other for millions of years, causing huge stresses to build up.

The government has raised alert levels of 21 other volcanos to the second- and third- highest levels in the last two months because they also have shown an increase in activity, state volcanologist Syamsul Rizal said Monday.

That’s twice the number usually on the government “watch” list.

Hundreds of flights were canceled in Europe after the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokul volcano in April.

Associated Press writers Vijay Joshi in Kuala Lumpur, Achmad Ibrahim in the Mentawai islands and Irwan Firdaus and Ali Kotarumalos in Jakarta contributed to this report.

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