JAKARTA, July 11 (Reuters) - Indonesia's Mount Gamkonora has started spitting out flaming rocks and sending showers of sparks into the air, indicating the volcano in the east of the country is likely to erupt, an official said on Wednesday.
Thousands of people living close to the volcano have been evacuated since it started sending out towering columns of ash and smoke on Saturday, with panic reported in some areas nearby.
Flaming material started to appear on Tuesday evening, indicating magma was approaching the crater's surface, said Saut Simatupang, head of Indonesia's Vulcanological Survey.
"The volcano spit flaming rock as high as 15 metres (50 ft) ... this indicates magma is now close to the crater's surface," Simatupang said by telephone from the town of Bandung.
The official said in later comments that the volcano may be building up to an eruption.
"The pressure seems to have lessened, but since we don't see any signs of the volcano stopping. It may be collecting energy for a bigger blowout," he said.
Clouds of smoke and ash had grown thicker from midday on Wednesday, obscuring the volcano.
No casualties or damages have been reported, but authorities have placed the highest alert level four on the forest-clad volcano since Sunday.
Kalbi Rasid, a local government spokesman, said some 8,600 people had already been moved away from the mountain's slopes into three government shelters, but around 1,000 remained to guard their houses.
"We have urged people to stay in shelters for another two days. There's less smoke, but it doesn't mean the volcano is safe," Rasid said.
The official said many of the displaced suffered breathing problems and diarrhoea.
A police officer from Jailolo, a town 35 km (22 miles) from the mountain's slopes, said that the volcano had sparked some panic in the area.
"I've never seen so much smoke and ash rising from the mountain before," the officer, who gave his name as Erwin, said before the telephone line was cut off.
The 1,635 metre volcano, about 2,400 km (1,491 miles) east of the capital Jakarta in North Maluku province, is the highest peak on the island of Halmahera.
Communications in the remote area are often patchy.
The last time ash and smoke streamed out of the volcano was in 1987, when no casualties were reported, although a major eruption is said to have taken place in 1673.
Indonesia has the highest number of active volcanoes of any country, sitting on a belt of intense volcanic and seismic activity known as the "Pacific Ring of Fire". (Additional reporting by Telly Nathalia)
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