Villagers return as Merapi volcano rumbles on

A soldier looks at Mount Merapi from an ash-covered field on 15 November 2010 Huge areas around the volatile volcano are covered in thick grey ash

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Thousands of villagers are returning to their homes near Indonesia's Mount Merapi volcano, which has been erupting for three weeks.

Scientists say that activity has fallen in recent days, and the government reduced the exclusion zone around the volcano over the weekend.

But they said that the threat from the volcano remained.

At least 259 people have been killed since Mt Merapi began erupting on 26 October.

Rescue teams have been finding bodies buried under grey ash in areas close to the volcano.

Most of those who died were killed in the biggest eruption on 5 November, when Mt Merapi shot out jets of boiling gas and rock.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been living in temporary shelters around the volcano.

'Nothing to eat'

Vulcanologist Subandrio, who goes by one name, told AFP news agency that the alert status remained in place.

"The eruption process is still ongoing but the intensity has reduced significantly. The status is still alert," he said.

But the exclusion zone around the north and west faces of the mountain has been reduced from 12 miles (20km) to six miles, allowing some families to go home.

A local village chief warned that many would find property badly damaged by the eruption.

"Their houses are covered in thick ash; their crops can't be harvested," the Associated Press news agency quoted Lilik Sujati, the chief of Jati village on Mt Merapi, as saying.

"We need to find some way to help them. Many don't have anything to eat."

The airport in the nearby city of Yogyakarta has been closed for almost a week because of the ash and an official said that it would remain that way until Saturday.

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