BLITAR, Indonesia - Hundreds of thousands of Indonesians were ordered to evacuate and three international airports were closed Friday after a volcano on the main island of Java erupted spectacularly, hurling red-hot ash and rocks.
The alert status for Mount Kelud, considered one of the most dangerous volcanoes on densely populated Java, was raised late Thursday just hours before it began erupting.
TV images showed ash and rocks raining down on nearby villages, while AFP correspondents at the scene saw terrified locals covered in ash fleeing in cars and on motorbikes towards evacuation centres.
International airports in the Javanese cities of Surabaya, Yogyakarta and Solo were closed temporarily, Transport Ministry director general of aviation Herry Bakti said on Metro TV, which showed images of grounded planes covered in ash.
National disaster agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said that some 200,000 people from 36 villages in a 10-kilometre (six-mile) area around Kelud, in Kediri district in eastern Java, had been told to evacuate.
"A rain of ash, sand and rocks is reaching up to 15 kilometres (nine miles)" from the volcano's crater, he said.
Many of the men displaced tried to return to their homes near the foot of the volcano early Friday morning to gather their families' clothing and valuables, but a continuous downpour of volcanic ash and rocks sent them running back.
At a temporary shelter in the village of Bladak, some 10 kilometres from the volcano's crater, around 400 displaced people, including children, slept on the floor wearing safety masks.
The Center for Volcanology and Geological Hazard Mitigation said there was little chance of another eruption as powerful as Thursday night's, but tremors around the volcano could still be felt Friday as volcanic materials continued to blanket the rooftops of entire villages.
Communities within the affected 15-kilometre radius began clearing piles of grey ash as high as five centimetres from roads to avoid accidents, Nugroho said.
The National Search and Rescue Agency sent text messages to residents of affected areas warning them not to return home, saying that lava was still flowing through some villages while sulphur was lingering in the air in others.
The 1,731-metre (5,712-foot) Mount Kelud has claimed more than 15,000 lives since 1500, including around 10,000 deaths in a massive 1568 eruption.
It is one of some 130 active volcanoes in Indonesia, which sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire, a belt of seismic activity running around the basin of the Pacific Ocean.
Earlier this month another volcano, Mount Sinabung on western Sumatra island, unleashed an enormous eruption that left at least 16 people dead.
Sinabung has been erupting on an almost daily basis since September, coating villages and crops with ash and forcing tens of thousands out of their homes.