KARANGASEM, Indonesia (Reuters) - Indonesia shut the airport on its holiday island of Bali for a third consecutive day on Wednesday, as the erupting Mount Agung volcano spewed ash that blocked flight paths and spurred authorities to hasten evacuation efforts.
A large plume of white and grey ash and smoke hovered above Agung, after nighttime rain had partially obscured the fiery glow seen at its peak in the last few days.
President Joko Widodo implored residents living in a zone around Agung deemed at risk to seek refuge in emergency centres, as winds sending an ash cloud southwest across the island once again halted flights.
Bali’s airport, the country’s second biggest, will be shut until at least 7 a.m. on Thursday (2300 GMT on Wednesday), the transport ministry said.
Some stranded Chinese tourists appeared confused and upset over their predicament.
“All the Chinese people here feel (it is) dangerous (because of) the mountain,” said Richard Cao. “You know in China we don’t have such a mountain and it is the first time we faced this kind of problem.”
Another said his group had received little help in efforts to leave, apart from being told to take a ferry to the neighbouring island of Java and fly out via Surabaya.
“The travel agency left us alone,” said the passenger, who declined to be identified. “They told us we need to go to Surabaya, but they couldn’t even book the ticket, so why should we go to Surabaya?”
Officials of China’s consulate in Bali met tour operators on Tuesday to thrash out steps to help stranded tourists, whom they had warned earlier of the risk of getting stuck.
Chinese have overtaken Australians as the top visitors to Bali, making up about a quarter of arrivals in the period from January to September.
As many as 443 domestic and international flights were disrupted on Tuesday by the closure of the airport, about 60 km (37 miles) away from Mount Agung.
Ten alternative airports are ready to receive diverted inbound flights, the airport operator has said, adding that it was helping people make alternative bookings.
Some tourists at Bali’s I Gusti Ngurah Rai International Airport appeared relaxed.
“No, it’s fine, we are in Bali, we can’t complain,” said stranded Australian Lisa White. “It’s annoying, but there’re worse things that could happen.”
Agung towers over eastern Bali to a height of just over 3,000 meters (9,800 feet). Its last major eruption in 1963 killed more than 1,000 people and razed several villages.
Layers of ash coated cars, roofs and roads in an area southeast of the crater. Children wore masks to walk to school.
Authorities want residents in a radius of about 8 km to 10 km (5 miles to 6 miles) around the volcano to head for emergency centres, warning a larger eruption could be “imminent”. But some are reluctant to leave homes and livestock unattended.
“Those in the 8- to 10-kilometer radius must truly take refuge for safety,” President Widodo told reporters.
He also asked emergency services, military and officials to assist evacuees and help stranded tourists get home.
“There must not be any victims hit by the eruption,” Widodo said.
Additional reporting by Cindy Silviana in JAKARTA; Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Clarence Fernandez