Indonesia's Mount Merapi has erupted three times, emitting searing clouds and volcanic ash, a vulcanologist said.
"We heard three explosions around 06:00 pm (local time) spewing volcanic material as high as 1.5 kilometres and sending heat clouds down the slopes," government vulcanologist Surono said.
Before the latest eruption people living in the shadow of Indonesia's most active volcano had been warned to evacuate or risk being killed.
Authorities had put an perimeter 10 kilometres around the crater of Mount Merapi on red alert Monday, ordering 19,000 people to flee.
"This eruption is certainly bigger than the 2006 eruption during which the heat clouds occurred for only seven minutes after the eruption," Surono said.
"Today's eruption released heat clouds of gas and ash down the slopes for about two hours. We cannot tell you how far the searing clouds went down on the slopes because it's dark."
Television footage showed thousands of people fleeing the eruptions in panic, some covered in white ash, as officials with loudhailers tried to help them escape the area.
The 2006 blast Surono referred to killed two people.
Before the latest eruption, officials said nearly 15,000 people had ignored evacuation orders despite several minor eruptions that sent lava spewing down Merapi's southern slopes.
Many people sleeping in camps returned to their homes during the day to work and tend to their cattle. Some men refused to leave altogether, confident they would be able to escape.
Field coordinator Widi Sutikno, of the Sleman district on the southern slopes of the 2,914 metre mountain, said only about 3,700 people out of 11,400 in his area had sought shelter in makeshift refuges.
"We have evacuated many women, pregnant women, sick people, elderly people and children," he said.
"We let some people return to their fields for their daily activity. But they need to go back to the camps and not their houses."
Sukamto, 50, a farmer, said his family had been evacuated but he still needed to tend his cows.
"It's still fine for me to work, as I can see when the volcano will erupt from here. I work at around eight kilometres from the top of Merapi and I think it's still safe," he said.
"However, I still have to be really careful here."
The Jakarta Post reported that Merapi had erupted three times on Monday afternoon, spewing lava down its southern and south-eastern slopes.
Indonesia has more active volcanoes than any other country.
Vulcanologists have warned that Merapi currently has more energy than before the June 2006 blast, its last fatal eruption.
Its deadliest eruption occurred in 1930 when more than 1,300 people were killed. Heat clouds from another eruption in 1994 killed more than 60 people.
The volcano lies around 25 kilometres north of the city of Yogyakarta on Java island.
In August, the 2,460 metre Mount Sinabung on the island of Sumatra erupted for the first time in 400 years, sending thousands of people into temporary shelters and disrupting flights.
Mount Sinabung is near Lake Toba, a 100 kilometre long volcanic crater that some archaeologists believe threatened the survival of the human race when it erupted between 69,000 and 77,000 years ago.
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