At least 16 people were killed yesterday when an Indonesian volcano that had been rumbling for months unleashed a major eruption.
The blast came a day after authorities had allowed thousands of villagers who had been evacuated to return to its slopes, saying that activity had decreased, officials said.
Among the dead on Mount Sinabung were a local television journalist and four high-school students and their teacher who were visiting the mountain to see the eruptions up close, said National Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho.
At least 10 other people were injured, and authorities feared the death toll would rise.
"The bodies were in a state where, even though their skin did not peel, their faces were swollen and the tongues were sticking out," a reporter on the ground said.
Sinabung, in western Sumatra, had been erupting for four months, sending lava and searing gas and rocks rolling down its southern slopes. Authorities had evacuated more than 30,000 people, housing them in cramped tents, schools and public buildings.
Many have been desperate to return to check on homes and farms, presenting a dilemma for the government.
On Friday, authorities allowed nearly 14,000 people living outside a five-kilometre danger zone to return home after volcanic activity decreased.
Yesterday, a series of blasts and eruptions thundered from the 2,600-metre-high volcano, sending lava and pyroclastic flows up to 4.5 kilometres away, Nugroho said. Television footage showed villages, farms and trees around the volcano covered in thick gray ash.
Following the eruption, all those who had been allowed to return home on Friday were ordered back into evacuation centres.
"The death toll is likely to rise as many people are reported still missing and the darkness hampered our rescue efforts," said Lieutenant Colonel Asep Sukarna, who led the operation to retrieve the charred corpses three kilometres from the volcano's peak.
Indonesia is prone to seismic upheaval due to its location on the Pacific "Ring of Fire", an arc of volcanoes and fault lines encircling the Pacific Basin. Mount Sinabung is one of about 130 active volcanoes in Indonesia.
Sinabung's last major eruption was in August 2010, when it killed two people. Prior to that, it had been quiet for four centuries.
In 2010, 324 people were killed over two months when Indonesia's most volatile volcano, Mount Merapi, roared to life.
Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse