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Indonesia extends Bali airport closure over volcanic ash

  • Mount Agung seen erupting at night from Kubu sub-district in Karangasem regency. Photo courtesy: AFP
  • A flight information board showing cancelled flights due to volcano at Ngurah Rai airport. Photo courtesy: AFP

By Bagus SARAGIH

Denpasar (AFP) -- Bali's international airport will be closed for a third day, Indonesian officials said Wednesday, as ash from a rumbling volcano that looms over the island paradise poses a danger to planes.

Mount Agung could produce a thunderous eruption at any moment, officials have warned, forcing the main airport to be shut since Monday.

Massive columns of thick grey smoke and ash that have been belching from the volcano since last week have now begun shooting high into the sky, forcing hundreds of flights to be grounded and stranding around 120,000 tourists.

Ash is dangerous for planes as it makes runways slippery and can be sucked into their engines.

"Bali's Ngurah Rai airport will remain closed until at least Thursday morning," airport spokesman Arie Ahsanurrohim told AFP.

Tens of thousands have already fled their homes around the volcano -- which last erupted in 1963, killing around 1,600 people -- but as many as 100,000 will likely be forced to leave, disaster agency officials have said.

Experts said Agung's recent activity matches the build-up to the earlier disaster, which ejected enough debris -- about a billion tonnes -- to lower global average temperatures by around 0.3 degrees Celsius for roughly a year.

"Small eruptions have been happening continuously but there's still the possibility of a bigger, explosive eruption," said I Gede Suantika, a senior volcanologist at Indonesia's volcanology agency.

"Activity remains high and we are still on the highest alert level."

Roadside signs that read "Volcanic danger zone. No entry!" underscored the potential risks of staying behind.

There is a 10 kilometre exclusion zone around Agung, which is 75 kilometres away from the beachside tourist hub of Kuta.

As of Wednesday around 440 flights had been cancelled with more than 120,000 passengers stranded by the delays.

The airport on nearby Lombok island -- also a popular tourist destination -- has opened and closed several times in the past few days. It is currently open.

'Ring of Fire'

Some 100 buses will haul visitors to several destinations including Indonesia's second-biggest city Surabaya -- 13 hours' drive and a ferry ride away -- and the capital Jakarta, the airport said, as torrential rain lashed the beach paradise.

The majority of Bali's tourists are Chinese, followed by Australians, Indians, British visitors and Japanese, according to the immigration office, which added that nearly 25,000 foreigners live in the small, Hindu-dominated island.

Foreigners whose visitor visas are expiring will be given a special permit to stay longer due to the eruption, the agency added.

Agung rumbled back to life in September, forcing the evacuation of 140,000 people living nearby. Its activity decreased in late October and many returned to their homes.

However, on Saturday the mountain sent smoke up into the air for the second time in a week in what volcanologists call a phreatic eruption -- caused by the heating and expansion of groundwater.

So-called cold lava flows have also appeared -- similar to mud flows and often a prelude to the blazing orange lava of popular imagination.

Indonesia, the world's most active volcanic region, lies on the Pacific "Ring of Fire" where tectonic plates collide, causing frequent volcanic and seismic activities.

Last year, seven people were killed after Mt. Sinabung on the western island of Sumatra erupted. A 2014 eruption at Sinabung killed 16.

 

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