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Fears death toll could rise in Indonesia volcano eruption

By AFP - Feb 02,2014 - Last updated at Feb 02,2014

KARO, Indonesia — Indonesian officials searched through thick ash for bodies Sunday after Mount Sinabung volcano erupted, killing at least 15 people, with the only sign of life an ownerless mobile phone ringing inside an abandoned bag.

Dark, searing clouds engulfed victims during the eruption on Saturday, leaving rescuers with little hope of finding survivors as they searched through ash up to 30 centimetres thick.

Officials said about 170 people armed with chainsaws and oxygen apparatus spread out through the destruction in Suka meriah village, just 2.7 kilometres from Sinabung’s crater, Sunday before the search was called off.

“There’s no sign of human life. All the crops were gone. Many houses were damaged and those still standing were covered in thick white ash. It was hard to walk in ash which nearly reached my calves,” Gito, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, told AFP.

“We didn’t find bodies but we picked up a bag belonging to one of the victims. The cell phone was ringing,” he added.

Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, the spokesman for the National Disaster Management Agency, was unable to put a figure to the number of people still missing, but said there was a “chance” that the death toll might rise.

Residents had been evacuated from the village, located in the “red zone” around the volcano where human activities are strictly banned.

“It’s very dangerous and completely out of bounds. But many of the tourists still secretly went to the area to take photographs,” disaster official Tri Budiarto said.

The search was halted Sunday afternoon, said Lieutenant Colonel Asep Sukarna, who led the operation.

“After two visits to the village, the volcanology agency recommended that we stop search for safety reasons. Visibility is low because of the thick smog and we could hear volcanic tremors,” he told AFP.

They hoped to continue the search tomorrow, he said.

Sukarna was pessimistic about finding anyone alive.

“I doubt it would be possible for anyone to survive the heat clouds yesterday. So far, we have not found any more bodies,” he said.

The volcano on the western island of Sumatra started erupting in September, but on Saturday spewed hot rocks and ash 2,000 metres  into the air, blanketing the surrounding countryside with grey dust.

Fourteen people — mainly local tourists, including four high school students on a sightseeing trip — were killed by lethal heat clouds which cascaded down the volcano.

Amid the apocalyptic scenes were ash-covered bodies, their faces swollen and their tongues sticking out, an AFP reporter on the ground said Saturday.

A 24-year-old man who was accompanying his father to pay respects at the graves of their relatives died from his injuries early Sunday, raising the death toll to 15, Nugroho said.

Two other people are being treated for serious burns at a local hospital.

Officials are putting up more signs to warn people not to enter the area, officials said.

Mount Sinabung is one of 129 active volcanoes in Indonesia that straddle major tectonic fault lines, known as the Pacific Ring of Fire.

The country’s most active volcano, Mount Merapi in central Java, killed more than 350 people in a series of eruptions in 2010.

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