Eerie calm follows big blast at Indonesian volcano

Scientists warned, however, that the notoriously unpredictable mountain could burst back to life at any minute. On the other side of the archipelago, aid deliveries to survivors of a tsunami that barrelled into the Mentawai islands one week ago, killing at least 449 people, were expected to resume today, thanks to a break in stormy weather that had grounded planes and ships.

A teenage girl with an open chest wound was among those waiting for help. The simultaneous catastrophes have severely tested the emergency response network in Indonesia, which lies in the Pacific "Ring of Fire", a cluster of fault lines prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity.

Mount Merapi, which means "Fire Mountain", unleashed a terrifying 21-minute eruption early Saturday, forcing the temporary closure of a nearby airport and claiming the life of a woman who crashed on her motorcycle during a chaotic last-minute evacuation.

Two other people hospitalised with burn injuries died overnight, said Nelis Zuliastri from the National Disaster Management Agency, bringing the death toll from the volcano's activity to 38.

A fiery red glow emanated from its peak today and black clouds of ash tumbled from its cauldron, but the violent bursts and rumbling of the last 48 hours had all but stopped. "It's still dangerous," warned Surono, chief of the Center for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation. "Often a major eruption, like the one we saw Saturday, is followed first by a period of silence, and then by another big blast."

Government camps well away from the base were overflowing with 53,000 people who have fled the mountain's eruptions, said Zuliastri. More than 2,000 troops have been called in to help keep villagers away during periods of high activity.

When the mountain is calm, however, they are allowed to go back for several hours between dawn and early afternoon to check on their precious livestock and crops.

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