A river of boiling lava from the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo has come to a halt outside Goma, sparing the city in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the military governor of the region said on Sunday.
After a volcanic eruption that sent thousands fleeing during the night, “the lava halted near Buhene on the outskirts of Goma… the city was spared,” said General Constant Ndima, adding that, according to a provisional estimate, “five people were killed” in related accidents.
On Saturday, thousands fled during the night and many families slept on pavements surrounded by their belongings under a night sky turned red by fire and fumes.
Officials said the lava had reached Goma city airport although residents said it had stopped at the edge of the facility.
Goma appeared relatively calm as dawn broke, but people said they are still wary.
“There is a smell of sulphur. In the distance you can see giant flames coming out of the mountain,” Carine Mbala, a resident of the city, told AFP news agency.
On Saturday, Communications Minister Patrick Muyaya said the government had activated an evacuation plan and was “discussing the urgent measures to take at present.”
By early Sunday, between 5,000 and 7,000 people had arrived in neighbouring Rwanda, according to the country’s national broadcaster.
The Rwanda Broadcast Agency tweeted photos of those arriving in Rubavu district but said early on Sunday that the evacuees had already begun heading home.
“At the moment, the Congolese who had evacuated into Rwanda because of the Nyiragongo volcanic eruption are returning to their homeland. It appears that the eruption has stopped,” it tweeted.
The first departures from Goma came even before the official confirmation that Mount Nyiragongo had erupted at approximately 7:00pm Saturday.
Power was already out in large parts of the city when hundreds of residents began leaving their homes.
Some headed out of the southern end of the city towards the nearby border post with Rwanda, while others headed west towards Sake, in the neighbouring Congolese region of Masisi.
Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi said he would “interrupt his stay in Europe to return home this Sunday to supervise the coordination of aid”.
In a May 10 report, the Goma Vulcanology Observatory warned that seismic activity around the volcano had increased and warranted careful monitoring.
The last time Nyiragongo erupted was January 17, 2002, killing 250 people, displacing 120,000 others 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 people abandoned to their fate in the northern districts of the city with some looting also taking place.