MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia – Thousands of villagers fed up with living in cramped camps have returned to their homes on the slopes of Indonesia's erupting Mount Merapi, ignoring warnings that the peak remains highly dangerous, an official said Thursday.
A camp that held some 2,500 people earlier this week was empty Thursday after a mass departure of refugees a day earlier, said Insan, an official at the shelter in a government building on the lower slopes of the mountain.
"They said it was like living in a prison," said Insan, who like many Javanese goes by a single name. "We tried to keep them entertained, but then rumors started spreading that their houses were being looted."
The 9,800-foot volcano has been shooting out lava and deadly clouds of hot ash and debris for several weeks. It has been rocked by a series of spectacular eruptions since Saturday, the most recent on Wednesday.
There have been no reports of casualties or property damage.
It was not clear how many of the roughly 5,000 people initially evacuated from dangerous areas near the crater remained in evacuation centers, including schools, mosques and government offices.
Most of those who left were farmers, wanting to return home to tend to crops and animals. They said camp life was boring and uncomfortable, even though food and doctors were on hand.
But scientists warned that a 3-million-cubic-yard lava dome that has built up in recent weeks was still perched on the crater and could collapse.
The main danger at present is clouds of hot ash, debris and gas that surge down the mountain side when the volcano becomes active.
But "there is still a possibility of a bigger eruption," said the area's chief vulcanologist, Ratdomopurbo, who also goes by only one name. "We have to watch out for the pattern of the volcano's activities."
Mount Merapi, which translates as "Fire Mountain," has erupted scores of time over the last 200 years, often with deadly results. It is one of the world's most active volcanoes.
In 1994, 60 people were killed by a searing gas cloud, while in 1930, more than a dozen villages were incinerated, leaving 1,300 dead.