(Update 2: Rewrites and adds info)
Kinshasa, May 23 (EFE).- The sky above the city of Goma, capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo’s North Kivu province, was tinted red before dawn on Sunday morning as the Nyiragongo Volcano continued its eruption, sowing panic among city residents and spurring thousands to flee their homes.
“We saw a big red cloud and that is when the panic started. We saw massive movements of people toward the border with Rwanda and to the west of the city,” Tom Peyre-Costa, the Norwegian Refugee Council’s regional spokesman for Central and West Africa, told EFE by telephone from Goma.
The preliminary death toll stands at five people who died in a traffic accident when they were trying to flee the provincial capital, located about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the volcano, the military governor of North Kivu, Constant Ndima, told local media on Sunday.
About 7 pm local time on Saturday, Nyiragongo – one of the world’s most active volcanos and often climbed by tourists who want to view the lava “lake” within its crater – began erupting, as confirmed to EFE by vulcanologist Celestin Kasereka Mahinda, the director of the city’s Vulcanology Observatory.
Initially, he said that “due to the direction of the lave (flow), it doesn’t seem that it’s going to enter Goma,” a tentative conclusion also reached by the United Nations Mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo after making reconnaissance flights in the area.
An alarm was issued once again when a new crack opened in the side of the volcano releasing a river of red-hot lava that moved toward the city, a situation that led authorities to activate an evacuation plan for Goma on Sunday morning.
On Sunday afternoon, however, the Congolese Communications and Media Ministry confirmed on Twitter that the flow of lava stopped about 4 am in Buhene, a town on the outskirts of Goma.
“There were different flows but just the last one was moving toward the city, which led to the evacuation of many NGOs, but at 4 am we learned that the lava had stopped a few meters from the airport,” Peyre-Costa told EFE.
Thousands of terrified local residents flew the city overnight, carrying some of their belongings and driving their livestock in front of them to the west toward the town of Sake, or to the Rwandan border, where at least 8,000 people crossed the frontier, according to official figures kept by the Congolese Emergency Management Ministry.
On Sunday, some people – little by little – were returning to their neighborhoods but “the big misfortune is that they’re finding their homes and the rest of their belongings burned up, and it’s the same thing for the people who had fled to Sake,” Prince Badjeka, a resident of Goma, told EFE, also by phone.
Although the lava did not make it into the city, hundreds of homes on the outskirts have been destroyed – reduced to ashes – according to provincial authorities.
Although, at present, Goma is not being fully evacuated because “there’s no longer volcanic activity,” the people who have lost their homes “will have to be relocated,” Peyre-Costa told EFE.
On May 11, the Goma Vulcanology Observatory had warned in a report about the status of the two active volcanoes – Nyamulagira and Nyiragongo – noting that they are “very active,” particularly Nyiragongo, “where some sporadic hybrid earthquakes are observed.”
Nyiragongo last erupted in 2002, forcing some 300,000 people to flee the “flood” of lava that covered a large part of Goma, killing about 250 and leaving 120,000 homeless.
The Virunga National Park – located in the eastern province of North Kivu, one of the areas most heavily affected by violence in DR Congo – is one of the few tourist destinations in the Central African nation and has been a UN World Heritage Site since 1979.