Indonesian villagers go home after volcano eruption

BRASTAGI, Indonesia (Reuters) - Thousands of Indonesian villagers evacuated when a volcano erupted for the first time in four centuries returned home on Tuesday, but officials said it was uncertain whether the threat from the volcano had passed.

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Mount Sinabung, in North Sumatra, erupted for the first time in 400 years on Sunday. A second, more forceful eruption occurred early on Monday, sending plumes of dark grey smoke and volcanic ash up to 2 km (1.5 miles) into the air.

Around 30,000 people had been evacuated from nearby villages, but many were headed home on Tuesday, said the head of the National Disaster Mitigation Agency, Syamsul Maarif.

“By today, about 7,000 have already gone back to their villages,” he told Reuters by phone. “It’s too early to say it’s safe yet. We are still monitoring the situation.”

A Reuters TV producer filming close to the volcano said he had seen hundreds of villagers returning home in trucks, many wearing face masks.

Ainun Nasution, who lives in a village close to the slopes of the volcano, told Reuters she was returning to work in her cabbage and chilli fields.

“I am afraid my crops may fail because of the ash,” she said.

Reuters television footage showed plumes of smoke moving skyward from the 2,460-meter volcano, but they were much smaller than the two previous days.

The head of Indonesia’s vulcanology center, Surono, said the amount of smoke had reduced significantly.

“And the color is now whiter, which means it’s mainly steam and not volcanic ash,” said Surono who, like many Indonesians, has only one name.

“We have recorded signs of magma activity inside the volcano. The magma is still active, but this doesn’t necessarily mean it’s dangerous because all volcanoes have some magma activity.”

He said it was impossible to determine whether the threat had passed, but called on villagers not to panic.

Writing by Sunanda Creagh; Editing by Sara Webb and Ron Popeski