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272 Indonesians die in wake of volcano, tsunami and earthquake

The death toll from an earthquake and killer tsunami in Indonesia climbed to 272 today as helicopters with rescuers and emergency supplies finally reached the remote islands.



The estimated number of casualties rose to 272 dead and 412 missing, up from 154 earlier in the day, said disaster official Ade Edward.

The first aerial surveys of the region revealed huge swathes of land underwater and the crumbled rubble of homes torn apart by the wave.

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono cut short a state visit to Vietnam to travel to the site.

Meanwhile rescuers scoured the slopes of Indonesia's most volatile volcano for survivors today after it was rocked by an eruption which killed at least 30 people, including an old man who refused to abandon his ceremonial post as caretaker of the mountain's spirits.

Authorities warned the thousands who fled Mount Merapi's wrath not to return during today's lull in volcanic activity, but some villagers were desperate to check on crops and possessions left behind.

Two days after a powerful earthquake triggered the wave, the casualty count was still rising as rescuers and disaster officials finally reached the Mentawai island chain, which was closest to the epicentre and the worst hit. Bad weather had kept them away.

It was the second major disaster to strike Indonesia in less than 24 hours. The country's most volatile volcano, Mount Merapi, 800 miles (1,300 kilometres) to the east, erupted at dusk on Tuesday, sending up searing ash clouds.

Both events fell along Indonesia's portion of the Pacific Ring of Fire, a series of fault lines that are prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity stretching from the Western Hemisphere through Japan and Southeast Asia.

Disaster officials were still trying to reach more than a dozen villages on the Mentawais - a popular surfer's destination that is usually reachable only by a 12-hour boat ride.

The 7.7-magnitude quake that struck late on Monday just 13 miles (20 kilometres) beneath the ocean floor was followed by at least 14 aftershocks, the largest measuring 6.2.

The latest blast from the volcano last night eased pressure that had been building up behind a lava dome perched on the crater. But experts warned the dome could still collapse, causing an avalanche of the blistering gas and debris trapped beneath it.

"It's a little calmer today," said Surono, the chief of the Centre for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation. "No hot clouds, no rumbling. But a lot of energy is pent up back there. There's no telling what's next."

Mount Merapi, which translates as "Fire Mountain," has erupted many times over the last 200 years. In 1994, 60 people were killed.

More than 11,000 people live on its fertile slopes.

A doctor at a local hospital said the death toll climbed to 30 and 17 had been taken to hospital, mostly with burns, respiratory problems and other injuries.

Among the dead was Maridjan, an 83-year-old man who had been entrusted by a highly respected late king to watch over the volcano's spirits.

"We found his body," said Suseno, a rescue worker, amid reports that the old man was found in the position of praying, kneeling face-down on the floor.

Maridjan, who for years led ceremonies in which rice and flowers were thrown into the crater to appease spirits, has angered officials in the past by refusing to evacuate even during eruptions.

They accused him of setting a wrong example, stopping other villagers from leaving, but Maridjan always said he would only go if he got a sign from the long-dead king who appointed him.

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