Thousands return to slopes of Indonesian volcano

Thousands of villagers returned to ash-covered homes along the slopes of Indonesia's most volatile volcano Monday, after the government said some areas well away from the fiery crater appeared out of danger from another eruption.

The notoriously unpredictable volcano in the heart of Java island roared back to life on Oct. 26, killing more than 259 people in a series of eruptions, according to the National Disaster Management Agency. Merapi was still rumbling and spewing searing ash and debris Monday, said state volcanologist Surono, but activity has dropped sharply in recent days.

After spending nearly three weeks in crowded emergency camps, the villagers headed up Mount Merapi loaded down with mats, blankets and clothes to find almost everything they had was gone, said Lilik Sujati, the chief of Jati, a village on Mount Merapi.

"Their houses are covered in thick ash; their crops can't be harvested," he said. "We need to find some way to help them. Many don't have anything to eat."

The government has responded to the slow down in activity by reducing the "danger-zone" — which had been at 12 miles (20 kilometers) for more than a week — to six miles (10 kilometers) from the crater on the northern and western flanks.

That has allowed some of the more than 390,000 evacuees to return home.

Merapi is the most active in Indonesia, a vast archipelago of 235 million people that is prone to seismic activity because it sits along the Pacific "Ring of Fire," a horseshoe-shaped string of faults that lines the Pacific Ocean.