Indonesia ordered the immediate evacuation Saturday of thousands of people from the slopes of Mount Merapi volcano, warning of an imminent eruption as the mountain oozed fiery lava and belched clouds of black ash.

Hundreds of women, children and elderly were taken in buses and trucks to relocation centers set up at local schools and government buildings.

Authorities put the region on highest alert after they observed two days of steady lava flow from the 9,700-foot peak on the island of Java.

"Because there have been constant lava flows that cause hot gases, we have raised the status to the highest level," said Bambang Dwiyanto, head of the region's volcanology center.

Many people had been evacuated from homes closest to the crater prior to Saturday, but thousands who live further down the fertile slopes refused to leave behind precious livestock and crops. Officials have said as many as 7,000 people still needed to go.

On Saturday, experts recorded 27 volcanic tremors as burning lava oozed from the crater and reached nearly a mile down its slopes, said Dr. Ratdomo Purbo, who heads an observation post at Merapi. He said the mountain, about 250 miles southeast of Indonesia's capital, Jakarta, had spewed hot ash clouds at least 14 times on Saturday.

By sunset, plumes of white smoke streaked several miles across an otherwise peaceful sky over the mountain.

The raised danger alert means anyone living near the peak of the volcano will immediately be evacuated to temporary shelters elsewhere in densely populated Central Java province.

Merapi is about 10 miles from Yogyakarta, a city of 1 million. The volcano came back to life in recent weeks after years of relative inactivity.

Some farmers said they would stay on their land because they had not seen any volcanic activity themselves, defying a request from the revered Sultan Sri Hamengkubuwono of Yogyakarta -- who is also the regional governor.

Many people who live in the mountain's shadow believe that spirits watch over the peak and will warn them of an eruption.

Although most Indonesians are Muslim, many also follow animist beliefs and worship ancient spirits. Often at full moons, people trek to crater rims and throw in rice, jewelry and live animals to appease the volcanoes

Merapi is one of at least 129 active volcanoes in Indonesia, part of the Pacific "Ring of Fire" -- a series of fault lines stretching from the Western Hemisphere through Japan and Southeast Asia.

It last erupted in 1994, sending out a searing cloud of gas that burned 60 people to death. About 1,300 people were killed when it erupted in 1930.