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Villagers return to volcano slopes

Villagers have returned to their homes along the fertile slopes of an Indonesian volcano that spewed hot ash and smoke after lying dormant for more than four centuries - catching scientists off guard.

Betta Tarigan, a 48-year-old farmer, piled into the back of a crowded pick-up truck and headed up Mount Sinabung to check on his cattle and crops, blanketed in heavy grey soot with the air thick with the smell of sulphur.

"There's not going to be a harvest this year ... look at these tomatoes," Mr Tarigan said, after grabbing clothes and blankets for his wife and children so he could head quickly back to one of many emergency shelters along the volcano's base.

The eruption of the 8,000ft volcano on Sunday was followed by a much more powerful blast on Monday, forcing the evacuation of more than 30,000 people and putting the region on the highest alert level. Some domestic flights had to be diverted because of poor visibility.

Two people died, but Priyadi Kardono of the National Disaster Management Agency said it was too early to say if the volcano was to blame.

Sinabung last erupted in 1600 and officials acknowledged they had not been monitoring the volcano because it had been inactive for so long - meaning they know next to nothing about its eruption patterns.

"We were totally in the dark," said Imam Simulingga, a government vulcanologist, noting that there are 129 active volcanoes in Indonesia, which is located within the so-called "Ring of Fire" - a series of fault lines stretching from the Western Hemisphere through Japan and south-east Asia.

"We didn't know anything until it started rumbling."

He and others said they would be watching it "very closely" from now on.

Like other volcanoes along the Sumatra fault line - the meeting point of the Eurasian and Pacific tectonic plates that have pushed against each other for millions of years - Sinabung has the potential to be very destructive.

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