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 the Nyiragongo volcano sent thousands of terrified residents fleeing in panic.
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 and leaving smouldering wreckage in its wake, an AFP correspondent said.
But the military governor of North Kivu province said "the city was spared" by a matter of a few hundred yards (metres) after "the lava halted near Buhene on the outskirts of Goma".
Five people were killed in accidents during the evacuations, said General Constant Ndima, appointed governor early this month when the province was placed under a "state of siege" to combat violence by armed groups.
Ndima reported some thefts from shops and an attempted escape of inmates from Goma prison but said "the situation is under control."
Many families slept on pavements surrounded by their belongings under a night sky turned red by fire and fumes.
The morning brought around a dozen earth tremors, prompting Pope Francis to offer a special prayer for Goma in his Sunday Vatican address.
"This morning we saw the whole district had gone up in smoke, the flames came right down here from Nyiragongo," said one resident, Irene Bauma.
"People have lost property, maybe there are some dead," said local trader Kambere Ombeni, who called on the government to help.
Ndima said around 7,000 people fled overnight to neighouring Rwanda before returning.
"All the Goma residents returned home without incident this morning after spending the night in emergency shelters which Rwanda set up, mainly schools," said Rwanda's minister for emergency management, Marie Solange Kayisire.
She spoke to AFP from the town of Rubavu near the border with the Democratic Republic of congo.
"Only about 100 of them are still in Rwanda but they are people who have cars who spent the night in hotels," added Kayisire.
Despite a relative return to calm Goma residents remained wary.
"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.
Tourists who were near the crater when the volcano erupted are safe, the congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) tweeted, adding the rare mountain gorillas in the Virunga National Park, where Mount Nyiragongo is located, were likewise not threatened by the eruption.
- 'Not sure it's over' -A few cars were on seen on the streets Sunday, 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.
On Saturday, Communications Minister Patrick Muyaya had said that the government had activated an evacuation plan and was "discussing the urgent measures to take at present."
The president of the Democratic Republic of congo, Felix Tshisekedi, said he would "interrupt his stay in Europe to return home this Sunday to supervise the coordination of aid".
General Ndima said Monusco, the UN mission in the country, NGOs and international organisations in the DRC would hold an emergency meeting on the crisis later Sunday with local and regional authorities.
The first departures from Goma city came even before the official confirmation that Mount Nyiragongo had erupted at around 7:00 pm Saturday, spewing red fumes into the night sky.
- 'I'm scared again' -Power was already cut in large parts of the city when hundreds of residents began leaving their homes.
Some headed out of the southern end of Goma towards the nearby border post with Rwanda, while others headed west towards Sake, in the neighbouring congolese region of Masisi.
Resident Richard Bahati said he was incredibly worried about the eruption: "I lived through this volcano problem in 2002.
"The volcano had devastated all our homes and all our possessions. That's why I'm scared again this time."
Electricity was cut off in a large part of the city as thousands of people -- encumbered with mattresses, food and parcels -- streamed towards the Rwandan border.
- Last flights -Several planes, belonging to Monusco and private companies, took off on Saturday evening, according to an airport source, with a local adding they had also seen the unusual nighttime activity.
In a May 10 report, the Goma Vulcanology Observatory warned seismic activity around the volcano had increased and warranted careful monitoring of a region with six volcanos in all.
The Observatory's Adalbert Muhindo said ongoing tremors meant people had to remain vigilant and warned it would be dangerous for locals who had fled to think of returning to the vicinity for now.
The last time Nyiragongo erupted was January 17, 2002, killing more than a hundred people and covering almost all of the eastern part of Goma with lava, including half of the airport's landing strip.
During that eruption, the victims were mostly sick or elderly abandoned to their fate in the northern districts of the city with some looting also taking place.
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