Indonesians try to return to homes on Mount Merapi

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Media captionRachel Harvey: "There's a layer of ash on the roads, cars and buildings'

Villagers in Indonesia are trying to return to their homes on the slopes of a volatile volcano, despite eruptions that have killed at least 29 people.

Mount Merapi in Java has been spewing molten rock, heat clouds and ash into surrounding areas since Tuesday.

Thousands of people were evacuated but many locals are reported to be queuing to cross safety checkpoints.

Experts told the BBC that although ash levels had subsided their readings suggested there would be new eruptions.

One government vulcanologist, known only as Subandrio, told the BBC that there was no way of telling when or how big they would be.

Another vulcanologist said pressure building up under a "lava dome" inside the volcano threatened to create a "pyroclastic flow" - a highly dangerous mix of heat and poisonous gases.

"At some point either there's an explosion from below that causes it to collapse, or a simple addition of lava causes it to collapse. And this sends large, hot blocks of solidified lava down the slopes," said Ed Venski, of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

Experts hope the volcano, some 500km (310 miles) south-east of Jakarta on Indonesia's most heavily populated island, Java, will release steam slowly rather than erupt in a big blast.

'Death zones'

At least 40,000 people have been evacuated to makeshift shelters.

The BBC's Rachel Harvey, who is at the scene, says many people, particularly young men, are trying to return to their homes to check on their livestock and property.

Checkpoints, manned by police and volunteers, have been set up on main roads into the exclusion zone.

However, there are lots of small lanes that give access to the slopes, and this is making it very difficult for the authorities to keep track of people, our correspondent says.

"We'll do everything we can to stop them," Hadi Purnomo, the district chief in Sleman, told the Associated Press.

He described several nearby villages as "death zones", saying: "There's no life there. The trees, farms, houses are scorched. Everything is covered in heavy gray ash."

"People are going home with sacks of grass to feed their cows. Some say they need to see the condition of their houses while others want to pick up belongings as they don't have enough clothes at the shelters," checkpoint volunteer Wawan Fauzi told AFP.

Many people ignored the initial warnings of an impending eruption.

At least 29 people are now confirmed dead, according to the Disaster Management Agency.

A two-month-old baby was among the dead.

The man known as the volcano's spiritual gatekeeper, Mbah or grandfather Marijan, was also found dead in his house about 4km (2.5 miles) from the summit.

For many Javanese, Merapi is a sacred site. Marijan was appointed by the late sultan of Yogyakarta, Hamengkubuwono IX, to mediate with the spirits of the mountain.

The volcano last erupted in 2006, killing two people.

In 1930 another powerful eruption wiped out 13 villages, killing more than 1,000 people.

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