Thousands of panicked people flee as volcano erupts

·3-min read

Lava from a volcanic eruption has approached the airport of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo's main city of Goma, as the government urged residents to evacuate.

As the red glow of Mount Nyiragongo tinged the Saturday night sky above the lakeside city of about two million, thousands of Goma residents carrying mattresses and other belongings fled the city on foot - many toward the frontier with Rwanda.

Nyiragongo's last eruption in 2002 killed 250 people and left 120,000 homeless. It is one of the world's most active volcanoes and is considered among the most dangerous.

Rwanda's Ministry in Charge of Emergency Management said more than 3500 Congolese have crossed the border. Rwandan state media said they would be lodged in schools and places of worship.

Congolese residents of Goma flee from Mount Nyiragongo volcano as it erupts over Goma. Source: EPA/Hugh Kinsella Cunningham
Thousands of Goma residents carrying mattresses and other belongings fled the city on foot. Source: EPA/Hugh Kinsella Cunningham

New fractures were opening in the volcano, letting lava flow south toward the city after initially flowing east toward Rwanda, said Dario Tedesco, a volcanologist based in Goma.

"Now Goma is the target," Tedesco told Reuters. 

"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.

Emmanuel De Merode, head of Virunga National Park, asked park employees in parts of Goma to evacuate, according a note seen by Reuters. 

He said lava had reached the international airport on the eastern edge of the city but that it was not likely to reach other parts of Goma.

Celestin Kasereka, head of scientific research at the Goma Volcano Observatory (OVG), told reporters he did not think the lava was flowing fast enough to reach Goma.

This image from video provided by Raphael Kaliwavyo Raks-Brun shows Mount Nyiragongo erupting on Saturday. Source: Raphael Kaliwavyo Raks-Brun via AP
New fractures have opened in the volcano, letting lava flow south toward the city after initially flowing east toward Rwanda. Source: Raphael Kaliwavyo Raks-Brun via AP

A United Nations source said all UN aircraft had moved to the city of Bukavu to the south and Entebbe in neighbouring Uganda. The power was also out across much of Goma.

Prime Minister Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde convened an emergency meeting in the capital, Kinshasa, where the government activated an evacuation plan for Goma.

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

On the streets of Goma, panic spread quickly.

"We are panicked because we have just seen the entire city covered by a light that is not electricity or lamps," said John Kilosho. 

Lava is seen glowing inside the crater of the Nyiragongo volcano inside the Virunga National Park near the eastern Congolese city of Goma. Source: Reuters/Baz Ratner
Volcano watchers have worried that the volcanic activity observed at Nyiragongo mirrors that in the years preceding eruptions in 1977 and 2002. Source: Reuters/Baz Ratner

"We don't know what to do. We don't even know how to behave. There is no information."

Others fled to the city centre from villages and neighbourhoods threatened by lava on the northern outskirts.

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 1977 and 2002.

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.

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