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Mount Merapi, Indonesia • Eruptions at Indonesia's deadly volcano appeared to be intensifying Thursday as towering clouds of ash shot from the crater with a thunder-like roar, dusting towns up to 150 miles away and forcing motorists to switch on their headlights during the day.

The death toll climbed to 96 — with six more casualties recorded in the last 24 hours — and the government repeated orders to airlines to stay clear of the unpredictable mountain.

Mount Merapi, which means "Fire Mountain," is one of the world's most active volcanoes.

But even those who have dedicated a lifetime to studying it have been baffled by its erratic behavior since its first Oct. 26 eruption, which has been followed by more than a dozen other powerful blasts and thousands of volcanic tremors.

They had earlier hoped that would result in a long, slow release of energy.

"But we have no idea what to expect now," said Surono, a state volcanologist, adding that he has never seen the needle on Merapi's seismograph working with such intensity.

The fear is that a new lava dome forming in the mouth of the crater will collapse, triggering a deadly surge of up to 1,800 degree Fahrenheit ash and gas — known to experts as pyroclastic flows — at speeds of 60 mph

Though more than 75,000 people living along its fertile slopes have been evacuated to crowded emergency shelters away from the crater, dozens risk their lives to return during periods of calm to check on their livestock and homes.

With no winds early Thursday, white clouds from Merapi fired a spectacular 20,000 feet into the sky. Gusts later carried the smoke westward, dusting roof tops, trees and laundry lines far away with thick white powder. Rain pounded the region later in the day, clogging mountainside rivers with molten rocks and debris.

Subandrio, a state volcanologist, said people living in villages and emergency camps within 12 miles of the crater were told to clear out.

Thousands of men, women and children were loaded into trucks and taken to stadiums in cities far from the mountain, while others, covered in soot, jumped onto motorcycles and into cars.

Indonesia, a vast archipelago of 235 million people, is prone to earthquakes and volcanos because it sits along the Pacific "Ring of Fire," a horseshoe-shaped string of faults that lines the Pacific.

The volcano's initial blast occurred less than 24 hours after a towering tsunami slammed into the remote Mentawai islands on the western end of the country, sweeping entire villages to sea and killing at least 428 people.

There, too, thousands of people were displaced, many living in government camps.