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Indonesia

Threat of volcanic eruption triggers evacuation of nearly 50,000 on holiday island of Bali

Local religious leader says the mountain’s rumblings are a sign it was angry with tourists flouting local customs

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 September, 2017, 10:16am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 September, 2017, 9:49pm

Nearly 50,000 people have fled their homes for fear of an imminent volcanic eruption on the Indonesian resort island of Bali, disaster officials said on Monday.

Mount Agung, 75km from the tourist hub of Kuta, has been shaking since August and threatening to erupt for the first time in more than 50 years.

The National Agency for Disaster Management said 48,540 people had fled and the number was expected to rise because more than 60,000 people lived in the danger zone.

“There are still people who don’t want to be evacuated,” Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, an agency spokesman, told a press conference. “The reason is firstly, the mountain hasn’t erupted yet. Secondly, they are worried about their livestock.”

Officials issued the highest possible alert level on Friday after increasing volcanic activity and told people to stay at least 9km from the crater.

Evacuees have packed into temporary shelters or moved in with relatives.

Some 2,000 cows have been also moved from the flanks of the volcano.

Nengah Satiya left home with his wife three days ago but said he had been returning to the danger zone to tend to his pigs and chickens.

“There are many livestock in our village but nobody is taking care of them,” he said at an evacuation centre. “We take turns going back to feed them.”

The Indonesian Centre for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation said the mountain was still being shaken by hundreds of volcanic tremors.

“Sometimes the intensity increases, sometimes it decreases, it’s hard to tell when the mountain will erupt,” senior vulcanologist Gede Suantika said.

Mount Agung is one of more than 120 active volcanoes that run the length of Indonesia, which straddles the Pacific “Ring of Fire”.

It last erupted in 1963, killing more than 1,000 people and sending ash as far as the capital Jakarta.

The mountain, the highest point in Bali, is an important spiritual site for Balinese, who are predominantly Hindu in Muslim-majority Indonesia.

Pura Besakih temple, which is one of the island’s most prominent temples and just a few kilometres from the mountain’s slopes, has been closed to visitors since Saturday.

The temple narrowly avoided destruction when molten lava poured down the mountain 54 years ago.

Religious leader Sumerti Jero, from nearby Karangasem, said he saw the mountain’s rumblings as a sign it was angry with tourists flouting local customs.

“For example, they have been disobeying the ban for women who have their period to climb Mount Agung,” he said, adding many tourists also urinate on the mountain.

Bali attracts millions of foreign tourists every year to its palm-fringed beaches and is a particular favourite with visitors from neighbouring Australia.

A major eruption would probably have a significant toll on its tourism-dependent economy.

The airport in Bali’s capital Denpasar has made arrangements for diverting passengers to alternative hubs in neighbouring provinces if the mountain erupts.

But officials insist the island is generally safe.

“Bali is totally dependent on tourism. As long as the planes are still able to fly, I think tourism will be all right,” said Ketut Ardana, chairman of the Bali office of the Association of Indonesian Tour and Travel Agencies.

Still, tour operators like Mangku, the owner of Bali Trekking Tour, are watching with interest.

“Some of our customers have cancelled tours. We understand, because of the volcano,” he said.

Hongkongers heading to Bali will not be affected by volcanic activity on the island, local tour organisers have said.

A spokeswoman for Hong Thai Travel Services, one of the city’s major agencies, said its tours have not been affected.

Indonesia is among 20 countries or territories with an amber alert, the lowest level in the Hong Kong Security Bureau’s three-tier warning system. Visitors are advised to be aware of potential threats.

A Security Bureau spokesman said the government would continue to monitor the volcano’s activity.