MOUNT MERAPI, Indonesia - Thousands of people fled the fertile slopes of Indonesia's most dangerous volcano Saturday as glowing lava oozed down the side and ash and rock spewed from the mountaintop, leading authorities to warn that an eruption could come soon.
Villages on Mount Merapi were left virtually empty. Women, children and the elderly filled buses and trucks to be driven to shelters set up at government buildings and schools in nearby towns on the island of Java.
Throughout the day, volcanic tremors shook the ground, some strong enough to send people running in fear. After nightfall, fiery magma from the volcano's cauldron lit up the bottoms of clouds above the nearly 9,700-foot peak, and cascades of bright red stones tumbled down the mountainside.
Many people already had evacuated from homes closest to Merapi's crater after the volanco recently emerged from several years of relative quiet, but authorities said as many as 7,000 living farther down the slopes had refused to go and leave behind precious livestock and crops.
It wasn't clear how many of those obeyed the government's evacuation order Saturday. Groups of men who sent their families away were seen chatting around fires to keep warm during the night, guarding their homes against looters.
Edi, a 30-year-old villager, said he would stay unless he received a clear signal from the mountain's spirits that an eruption was at hand.
"People around here believe that if Merapi is going to explode there will be a sign, a magical sign," he said, sitting on a mat sipping coffee. "Either it comes in a dream, or in the form of a hallucination."
Although most Indonesians are Muslim, many also follow animist beliefs and worship ancient spirits. Often at full moons, they trek to crater rims and throw in rice, jewelry and live animals to appease the volcanoes.
A-P correspondent Chris Brummitt reports that villagers often look to the animals who inhabit the slopes of Mount Merapi (meh-RAH'-pee), for signs of a major eruption.
Merapi, about 250 miles east of Indonesia's capital, Jakarta, is one of at least 129 active volcanoes in the country, which lies along the Pacific "Ring of Fire" - a series of fault lines that feed volcanoes stretching from the Western Hemisphere through Japan and into Southeast Asia.
Merapi last erupted in 1994, sending out a cloud of searing gas that burned 60 people to death. About 1,300 people were killed when it erupted in 1930.
One man who defied the order to evacuate, Baijo, 30, said he was not worried about the risks of staying behind.
"I am not afraid. This is normal. We are looking after the village. If not, thieves will come," he said.
Some farmers said they had not seen any volcanic activity themselves so decided to remain on their land despite being urged to leave by the revered Sultan Sri Hamengkubuwono, who is also the regional governor in Yogyakarta, a city of 1 million people just 11 miles from Merapi.
"We will not leave soon because of our livestock," said one cattle raiser, who declined to give his name.
All roads leading up the mountain were closed as chunks of glowing pumice blew from Merapi's depths into the sky and burning gas fumes wafted through the air.
Authorities put the area on highest alert after observing two days of steady lava flow from the volcano.
"Because there have been constant lava flows that cause hot gases, we have raised the status to the highest level," said Bambang Dwiyanto, head of the region's volcanology center.
Experts recorded 27 volcanic tremors and eruptions of at least 14 plumes of hot ash Saturday, said Dr. Ratdomo Purbo, who heads an observation post at Merapi. He said a stream of lava extended nearly a mile down the mountain's side.