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Jakarta flights resume after volcano chaos

on 11/01/2019

International flights to Indonesia’s capital Jakarta returned to normal, officials said, a day ahead of a visit by US President Barack Obama, after volcanic ash caused a weekend of travel chaos.

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The eruption of Mount Merapi forced airlines to cancel eight flights on Sunday and 36 flights on Saturday, but officials said there would be no repeat of events in Iceland this year when a volcano disrupted transport across Europe.

“Everything has returned to normal today,” Air Transport’s Director General Herry Bakti told Agence France-Presse, referring to flights in and out of Soekarno Hatta international airport in Jakarta.

Obama is scheduled to arrive in Jakarta on Tuesday for a highly anticipated – and twice delayed – visit and US Embassy spokesman Paul Belmont said the trip “will go ahead as planned”.

Merapi lies 430 kilometres east of Jakarta but only 26 kilometres north of Yogyakarta, the historic capital of Central Java province, where the airport was closed for a fourth day on Monday.

Merapi, meanwhile, showed few signs of tiring on Monday, sending out thunderous claps as it shot clouds of gas and debris high into the air. Government vulcanologist Surono said gas and ash soared four kilometres into the air on Monday as the volcano, a sacred landmark in Javanese tradition, continued to heave and rumble.

“Merapi hasn’t stopped erupting since November 3.

It’s been fluctuating but tends to be in the high intensity range,” he said.

Mount Merapi, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, has erupted many times in the past century, killing more than 1400.

The notoriously unpredictable mountain unleashed its most powerful eruption in a century, sending hot clouds of gas, rocks and debris avalanching down its slopes at highway speeds, smothering entire villages and leaving a trail of charred corpses in its path.

Merapi’s latest round of eruptions began on October 26, followed by more than a dozen other powerful blasts and thousands of tremors.

The National Disaster Management Agency said the overall death toll from the volcano climbed to 141 on Monday after search and rescue teams found more bodies on the mountain.

Nearly 280,000 people – many of whom normally live on the fertile slopes of the volcano – have jammed into emergency shelters.

Many have complained of poor sanitation, saying there are not enough toilets or clean drinking water.

The Indonesian government has put Yogyakarta on high alert. The ash hung so thickly on Monday that breathing became painful and clothes stunk of smoke after any time spent outdoors.

Though there have been no orders to evacuate, many residents decided to go on their own.

They were seen packing up their homes and piling into cars and motorcycles. “What choice do we have?” asked Sukirno, 37, as he sped away with his wife and their eight-year-old daughter, saying he worried about the effect of the ash on their health.

The biggest threat to the city, experts say, is not searing gas clouds, but the Code River, which flows right into the city’s heart from the 3000-metre mountain.

It could act as a conduit for deadly volcanic mudflows that form in heavy rains, racing at speeds of up to 100km/h and destroying everything in their path.

A thick, black volcanic sludge has already inundated one city neighbourhood that starts at the river bank and climbs a hillside.

Friday’s blow-out killed at least 91 people and destroyed villages up to 18 kilometres away.

Islam mandates that the dead be buried quickly, so authorities gave relatives three days to identify their loved ones.

To speed up the process, most families chose to have their relatives interred in a mass grave – a common practice in Indonesia following a disaster.

One by one the bodies – some too charred to be identified – were lowered into a massive trench, dug into a large green field in the shadow of the volcano.

Some were in plain wooden coffins, others still in the morgue’s yellow body bags.

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.


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