Flights resume as Bali's volcano-hit airport reopens

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Thousands of foreign tourists were expected to leave Bali by plane Thursday following a nearly three-day airport shutdown sparked by a rumbling volcano on the Indonesian holiday island.

The alert level on Mount Agung remains at the maximum, but a change in wind direction blew towering columns of ash and smoke away from the airport, prompting authorities to re-open the island's main international gateway on Wednesday afternoon.

The move raised hopes for some of the 120,000 tourists stranded after the surge in volcanic activity grounded hundreds of flights since Monday, sparking travel chaos and forcing the evacuation of villagers living in its shadow.

Ash is dangerous for planes as it makes runways slippery and can be sucked into their engines.

"Since the airport reopened yesterday, some flights have resumed operation and things are gradually getting back to normal," said airport spokesman Israwadi, who like many Indonesians goes by one name.

More than 4,500 people have now flown out of the airport, authorities said.

On Wednesday evening, domestic carrier Garuda said it would start flights to several cities across the vast archipelago nation, while AirAsia flew to the Malaysian capital Kuala Lumpur.

However, the airport on nearby Lombok island--also a popular tourist destination--closed again Thursday after ash and smoke drifted in its direction.

Millions of tourists visit the palm-fringed island hotspot annually. The majority are Chinese, followed by Australians, Indians, Britons and Japanese, according to the immigration office, which added that nearly 25,000 foreigners live on the small Hindu-dominated island.

Tens of thousands of Balinese have already fled their homes around the volcano--which last erupted in 1963, killing around 1,600 people -- but as many as 100,000 will likely be forced to leave in case of a full eruption, disaster agency officials have said.

Experts said Agung's recent activity matches the build-up to the earlier disaster, which ejected enough debris -- about a billion tonnes--to lower global average temperatures by around 0.3 degrees Celsius for roughly a year.