JAKARTA • Indonesian villagers living in the shadow of one of the world's most active volcanoes fled to safety yesterday as Mount Merapi erupted, sending a cascade of ash and smoke some 5,000m into the sky.
The government ordered residents living within a 5km radius of the crater on Java island to leave as ash covered surrounding communities and even reached parts of Yogyakarta, Indonesia's cultural capital, some 30km away.
Officials shuttered the city's international airport following the eruption which began yesterday morning, resulting in more than two dozen flights being cancelled.
The Adisutjipto International Airport was closed at about 10.42am (11.42am Singapore time) and reopened at 2.17pm, state air-navigation operator AirNav Indonesia said.
Garuda Indonesia, the country's flag carrier, said it cancelled 14 flights. Low-cost carrier AirAsia said at least 12 flights were cancelled. Flights operated by the Lion Group were also affected.
It was not clear how many residents had left for local shelters, but around 12,000 people live in Merapi's immediate vicinity.
"Everybody ran here immediately," resident Familia Ekawati said from a shelter, adding that there was little warning of the blast before it happened. "There was no sign it would be erupting."
Some 120 people who were hiking on the mountain when the eruption happened are safe, the government said.
Merapi previously erupted in 2010, killing more than 300 people and forcing 280,000 to flee, in what is considered its most powerful eruption since 1930.
Despite yesterday's evacuation, officials played down the danger, saying it was a phreatic eruption, which happens when magma heats up ground water, building up pressure inside the crater.
"This kind of eruption is not dangerous and could happen anytime to an active volcano," national disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said in a statement. "There have not been any more eruptions (since this morning)."
The volcano's alert status has not been raised.
Officials have yet to comment on any injuries and damage caused by the eruption, which may affect residents in Yogyakarta and Central Java provinces.
"We are calling on residents to remain calm," Mr Sutopo said.
The eruption also caused minor tremors which were felt by people in surrounding cities, including in Surakarta, Boyolali and Klaten.
The South-east Asian archipelago nation of more than 17,000 islands and islets - and nearly 130 active volcanoes - is situated on the Pacific "Ring of Fire", a vast zone of geological instability where the collision of tectonic plates causes frequent quakes and major volcanic activity.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG, JAKARTA POST/ASIA NEWS NETWORK