Indonesia volcano spews ash in biggest eruption

By GRACEY WAKARI | July 17, 2011 | 3:44 AM EDT

TOMOHON, Indonesia (AP) — A volatile volcano in central Indonesia unleashed its most powerful eruption in days Sunday, spewing hot ash and smoke high into the air and sending panicked villagers racing back to crowded government shelters. There were no immediate reports of casualties.

Mount Lokon, located on northern Sulawesi island, rumbled back to life last week.

A series of blasts late Thursday and early Friday claimed one life — a woman who suffered a heart attack as she fled.

But Surono, a government volcanologist who uses only one name, said Sunday's 10:35 a.m. eruption was the strongest yet, shooting ash and debris 11,400 feet (3,500 meters) into the air.

Residents — thousands of whom were returning to their villages along the mountain's fertile slopes — jumped into cars and motorcycles to flee to makeshift camps near the base.

They'd been warned to stay away from the crater, but officials were unable to convince them to stay away.

"We need to tend our crops and animals," insisted Ronald Pelealu, one of thousands of evacuees from Kinilow village.

Mount Lokon is one of about 129 active volcanoes in Indonesia. Its last major eruption in 1991 killed a Swiss hiker and forced thousands of people to flee their homes.

Indonesia, a vast archipelago of 235 million people, is prone to earthquakes and volcanoes because it sits along the Pacific "Ring of Fire," a horseshoe-shaped string of faults that lines the Pacific Ocean.