Indonesia's Mount Merapi sent avalanches of searing hot gas and debris roiling down its scorched slopes Wednesday, and a scientist warned that the peak's fragile lava dome still posed a threat to thousands of villagers.

The 9,700-foot volcano has been at a near-continuous state of high alert for seven weeks, forcing the evacuation of thousands of villagers in a government-designated danger zone.

More than half a dozen avalanches carried gas and volcanic debris more than two miles down the peak's flanks, said Subandrio, a government scientist who used only one name.

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Magma has swelled into a volatile lava dome on the southern crater, he said, and there is a likelihood that it will collapse, causing an avalanche of the hot gas and volcanic debris trapped within it.

The government has ordered the evacuation of all residents living within about four miles of the peak, but says it cannot force them to leave or prevent villagers from returning to check their houses and crops. Hundreds have refused to go.

Another possible threat is posed by rain forecast for coming days that could wash millions of tons of ash and rock fragments down Merapi's steep slopes in powerful mudslides.

Two people died last week when hot gas shot down the mountain.

Searing gas clouds killed more than 60 villagers in 1994 and more than 1,300 people died in a a major eruption in 1930.