ARGOMULYO (Indonesia) - AT LEAST 54 people were killed on Friday when Indonesia's most active volcano erupted again, raining burning ash on villages outside the official danger zone and forcing thousands more to flee.

The latest deaths bring the total toll to almost 100 since Mount Merapi started erupting on Java island on Oct 26, a day after a tsunami killed more than 400 people off Suamtra island to the west. The mountain's biggest eruption in more than a century spewed ash over a vast area including the Central Java provincial capital of Yogyakarta about 28km to the south.

'The number of dead bodies we have received is 54,' said Banu Hermawan, a spokesman for Sarjito general hospital in Yogyakarta. 'The evacuation process is still ongoing now. We're afraid there'll be more deaths as some locations are still inaccessible due to hot ash and volcanic material.' Many of the dead were children from Argomulyo village, 18km from the crater, according to emergency response officials and witnesses.

'I found three bodies: a child, mother and father, still on their bed. They must have been sleeping when the hot ash struck their house,' rescuer Utha told AFP as he delivered 10 bodies to the hospital.

'We also fond a dead man with a phone still on his hand.' Yogyakarta police force medic Teguh Dwi Santosa said: 'Argomulyo village has been burned down to the ground by the heat clouds. Many children have died there. When I was in the village the ground was still hot.' A river running through the village also overflowed with a thick mixture of mud and ash, and several bodies lay unclaimed in the debris, witnesses said.

Ash, deadly heat clouds and molten debris gushed from the mouth of the 2,914m mountain and shot high into the sky for most of the night and into the morning. There was panic and chaos on the roads as people tried to flee in the darkness, rescue workers said. The ranks of evacuees swelled past 100,000 people, with 30,000 moved into a sports stadium about 25km away from the peak.

New Merapi blast kills 54