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Indonesia holds mass burial for volcano victims

world Updated: Oct 28, 2010 12:19 IST

AFP
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Disaster-prone Indonesia paused onThursday to bury victims of Mount Merapi's violent eruption, including an elderly spiritual leader appointed to hush the volcano's restless spirits.

More than 20 of the 32 victims were buried in a mass grave in central Java as the country reels from the twin disasters of Tuesday's eruption and a tsunami which struck Sumatra island on Monday, killing more than 300 people.

"They found my mother's body inside her house while my sister was lying on the ground outside," said 45-year-old mourner Dali Sri, as tears streamed down her face after the ceremony in Sidorejo village, south of the volcano.

Government volcanologists said Merapi, the most active volcano in an archipelago studded with smouldering peaks, had been relatively quiet since the deadly eruptions which smothered the surrounding countryside in fine ash.

Inside the danger zone on Thursday, the landscape was a picture of devastation. Houses were flattened and burnt, pine trees stood like chopsticks with leaves and branches seared away, and thick gray ash covered everything.

The stench of rotting bodies, of people and livestock, was strong in places, while clouds of white and black smoke rose menacingly from the mouth of the volcano above.

More than 50,000 people crammed into uncomfortable temporary shelters near the Central Java provincial capital of Yogyakarta were told it was too soon to return home.

"The volcano has been relatively calm. Its activity has slowed down since the eruption. We have to evaluate its activity in the coming days," state volcanologist Subandrio said.

In addition to the mass burial, other victims were being laid to rest in private ceremonies, including a revered elder known as Grandfather Marijan, the royal guardian of the mountain.

Appointed by the sultan of Yogyakarta to watch over the sacred "Mountain of Fire" and appease its spirits, the frail 83-year-old ignored orders to leave and died as he prayed at his home on the volcano's slopes.

Scores of people saw his body, wrapped in a blood-stained white sheet, lowered into a grave to the sound of chanted Islamic prayers.

"He is the most respected person here," said local resident Ani Wijayanti, 47.

"He was like a boat captain who would never surrender although he must pay with his life. He didn't want to compromise his principles although thousands of people left this place to safety."

Most of the victims died of burns or suffocation as searing ash and clouds of heated gas spewed out of the crater around 6 pm on Tuesday. Many were found huddled together in their homes.

Many more almost certainly would have been killed had the government not issued a maximum red alert warning of an imminent eruption on Monday and ordered people to evacuate a 10-kilometre (six-mile) zone around the mountain.