An Indonesian volcano, inactive for four centuries, erupted again on Monday, pitching ash two km (1.5 miles) into the air and sending nearby residents scurrying from their homes.

Villages were emptying fast near Mount Sinabung on the north of Sumatra island, leaving behind only officials from the bureau of meteorology and the police. Short-haul flights skirting the volcano were delayed.

Surono, head of Indonesia's vulcanology centre, told Reuters Monday's eruption was more powerful than the first a day earlier.

Earlier today was another eruption at 6.30 a.m., sending out smoke as high as two km, more or less, he told Reuters.

A Reuters photographer said he saw plumes of smoke rising from the 2,460-metre volcano after the second eruption. Inactive since 1600, it had been rumbling for several days.

I saw some hot pieces of volcanic rock come out and burn trees in the area, he said. A smell of sulphur pervaded the air as residents moved out of their homes to temporary shelters.

Indonesia is on the so-called Pacific Rim of Fire, an arc of volcanoes and geological fault lines triggering frequent earthquakes around the Pacific Basin. The eruption triggered the highest red volcano alert.

About 21,000 people had been evacuated from largely farming areas. Many fled to Medan, 50 km (30 miles), Indonesia's third-largest city, northeast of the volcano. Officials said much of the movement was unnecessary.

People have been evacuated from areas within a six km (four-mile) radius of the volcano, vulcanologist Surono said. Beyond six km it is safe, but there has still been a lot of panic among people here who don't understand that.

He said it was impossible to know when the eruptions would stop, but it was unlikely volcanic dust would drift to neighbouring countries.

Here, it is three millimetres (1/8 of an inch) thick on the leaves of plants, he said.

It has the potential to damage people's respiratory tracts, but in my lifetime of studying volcanoes I have never heard of anyone dying from inhaling volcanic ash.

Andang Santoso, a spokesman for the government air agency PT Angkasa Pura II, said major flight itineraries were unaffected.

However, there have been delays on the route between Medan and Sibolga, a town south of the volcano, he told Reuters in a telephone text message.

Metro TV broadcast a tearful interview with one resident, Maranatha, who had fled her village.

Why did this happen to our village? Why is this my fate? she said. We feel very sick and worried. This is very sad for us and it has affected everything. (Reporting by Sunanda Creagh and Olivia Rondonuwu; Editing by Sara Webb and Ron Popeski)