DR Congo Volcano: Goma ‘spared’ as lava flow from Mount Nyirangongo halts

UPDATED

A river of boiling lava came to a halt on the outskirts of Goma Sunday, sparing the city in eastern DR Congo from disaster after the nighttime eruption of Mount Nyiragongo sent thousands of terrified residents fleeing in panic.

Lava flow from the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo was seen in Buhene, on the outskirts of Goma, Congo in the early hours of today as confirmed by an AFP correspondent who said: “Fire and strong fumes emanated from the blackish molten rock as it swallowed up houses, heading towards Goma airport on the shores of Lake Kivu”.

The military governor of North Kivu province has confirmed the seizure saying “the city was spared” after “the lava halted near Buhene on the outskirts of Goma”.

“Five people were killed in accidents during the evacuations”, said General Constant Ndima, who was appointed governor early this month when the province was placed under a “state of siege” to combat violence by armed groups.

“Several thefts from shops and an attempted escape of inmates” from the city’s prison were reported, but “the situation is under control,” he said.

Thousands had fled during the night and many families slept on pavements surrounded by their belongings under a night sky turned red by fire and fumes. And around a dozen earth tremors were reportedly felt in the early hours.

Ndima said around 7,000 people had fled to neighouring Rwanda but had begun to return early on Sunday.

Others who sought refuge in the Sasisi region to the southwest “also are beginning to return to the city center”, he said.

Earlier in the morning it would be recalled, authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo had urged residents of the eastern city of Goma to evacuate after a volcano overlooking the area erupted.

Lava from Mount Nyiragongo approached Goma’s airport late on Saturday, as thousands of residents carrying mattresses and other belongings fled the border city on foot – many towards the frontier with Rwanda.

The military governor of North Kivu province, of which Goma is the capital, “confirmed the eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano … at around 7:00pm (17:00 GMT)”.

General Constant Ndima urged residents of Goma, a city of two million people that sits on Mount Nyiragongo’s southern flank and the north shore of Lake Kivu, to remain calm.

It is one of the world’s most active volcanoes and is considered among the most dangerous.

“The evacuation plan for the city of Goma has been activated,” Communications Minister Patrick Muyaya tweeted late on Saturday. “The government is discussing the urgent measures to take at present.”

The plan was activated after an emergency meeting in Kinshasha, he added.

President Felix Tshisekedi will cut short a trip to Europe to return to Congo on Sunday, the presidency said on Twitter.

The lava initially flowed east towards Rwanda, but new fractures were opening in the volcano allowing lava to flow south towards Goma, said Dario Tedesco, a volcanologist based in Goma.

“Now, Goma is the target,” Tedesco told the Reuters news agency. “It’s similar to 2002. I think that the lava is going towards the city centre.”

“It might stop before or go on. It’s difficult to forecast,” he said.

INSO, which coordinates safety for non-governmental organisations, said in a note that the lava had cut off a main road that runs north from Goma.

Translation: “The government says it is closely monitoring the situation in Goma, particularly the activity of the Nyiragongo volcano. According to Patrick Muyaya [a Congolese politician], ‘the local authorities are currently assessing the situation with the volcanological observatory in Goma, a detailed communication will follow’,” journalist Stanis Bujakera wrote on Twitter.

Emmanuel De Merode, head of Virunga National Park, asked park employees in parts of Goma to evacuate.

“The situation is deteriorating,” he said in a note to employees. Lava had reached the international airport on the eastern edge of the city, but he said it was not likely to reach other parts of Goma.

A United Nations source said all UN aircraft had been evacuated to the city of Bukavu to the south and Entebbe in neighbouring Uganda.

On the streets of Goma, panic spread quickly.“We have fled to seek shelter in town, ”says a resident in the neighbourhood.

The first departures from the city came even before the official confirmation of the eruption came. Power was out across much of the city and phone lines were busy, according to Reuters.

“We are panicked because we have just seen the entire city covered by a light that is not electricity or lamps,” said John Kilosho. “We don’t know what to do. We don’t even know how to behave. There is no information.”

Rwanda’s Ministry in Charge of Emergency Management said more than 3,500 Congolese have crossed the border.

Rwandan state media said they would be lodged in schools and places of worship.

Goma appeared relatively calm as dawn broke, but people said they are still wary.

“The situation seems to have calmed down for the moment,” one resident said.

“But people are still scared. The authorities still haven’t made any official announcement so far this morning,” he added. ‘Not sure it’s over’

“There is a smell of sulphur. In the distance you can see giant flames coming out of the mountain,” one resident, Carine Mbala, told AFP.

“People are wondering whether the volcano has stopped, or whether it will continue, whether the lava will reappear,” another resident said.

A few cars were seen on the streets, but no police or military presence was visible.

“We’re not convinced that the eruption is over in just a day. We’re waiting,” said one man.

Volcano watchers have been worried that the volcanic activity observed in the last five years at Nyiragongo mirrors that in the years preceding eruptions in 2002 and 1977.

Volcanologists at the OVG, which monitors Nyiragongo, have struggled to make basic checks on a regular basis since the World Bank cut funding amid embezzlement allegations.

In a bulletin on May 10, the observatory said there had been increased seismic activity at Nyiragongo earlier in the month.

The deadliest eruption of the 3,000-metre high volcano was in 1977, when more than 600 died.

Lens/ News Agencies

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