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Erupting Indonesian volcano threatens Obama visit

November 7, 2010

Signs of the eruption of the Mount Merapi volcano (C) puncturing the cloud cover over Java are pictured … JAKARTA (Reuters) – Indonesia's Mount Merapi volcano belched ash and toxic fumes into the atmosphere on Sunday, but authorities played down the threat to aircraft just two days before U.S. President Barack Obama was due to fly in.

White House officials said they were watching developments "very closely," but there were no plans for now to reschedule a visit that has already twice been postponed.

The volcano, on the outskirts of Yogyakarta city in Central Java, began spewing lava, superheated gas and deadly clouds of ash two weeks ago and has so far killed over 120 people and forced the evacuation of more than 150,000.

While the volcano is around 600 kms (400 miles) east of the capital, Jakarta, and authorities there said it had no impact on flying conditions, many international airlines canceled services to the country's main Sukarno-Hatta airport.

"Several foreign airlines have canceled flights, but actually the impact of Merapi is not disturbing air traffic (in Jakarta)," said Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, the director of disaster risk reduction at the National Disaster Mitigation Agency:

"We are following the developments very carefully," said Ben Rhodes, White House deputy national security advisor, in Mumbai, India, where Obama is on the first leg of a 10-day Asia tour.

A British Airways flight came close to crashing three decades ago after its engines sucked in ash from another Indonesian Volcano, Mount Galunnggung, about 180 kms (110 miles) south east of Jakarta.

Obama has twice postponed visits to Indonesia -- where he lived for several years as a child with his mother -- the first time in March as he struggled to push through a health reform bill in the U.S. and the second in June following the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

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