Thousands Flee Congo Volcano, 45 Dead

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo, January 18, 2002 (ENS) - The volcano Mount Nyiragongo erupted Thursday sending molten lava down the mountain in three tracks inundating the city of Goma. With over 80 percent of Goma's buildings destroyed or burning, a full evacuation is underway. Unconfirmed reports indicate 45 deaths.

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Fire in the crater of Mount Nyiragongo (Photos by Jack Lockwood, U.S. Geological Survey)
Frequent seismic activities, occurring every five minutes for 10 seconds, were reported, indicating further possible eruptions. Many people are reported to have fled and gathered on the top of Mount Goma.

Earlier today, the International Red Cross and Rwanda Red Cross confirmed between 50,000 and 60,000 people had crossed the Rwandan border into Gisenyi. By this evening that number is reported at 400,000, according to the United States aid agency USAID.

The total population of Goma is estimated at over 500,000, and it is feared that other people from the surrounding area may also begin to move.

Goma's airport has been closed, and continuing lava flows threaten fuel storage tanks at the airport. The Gisenyi airstrip has resumed operations.

There is no electricity or gas in the city of Goma, making water systems inoperable.

The lava flow has reached Lake Kivu. Contamination of the lake and possible explosions under the lake are of great concern.

An additional concern is the potential for the production of deadly carbon dioxide and other pollutants both in water and in the air.

United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan today assured the governments of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Rwanda that he will put the assets of the United Nations to full use in assisting them in mitigating the consequences of this disaster.

He has requested Ross Mountain, assistant emergency relief coordinator, to travel to the region to support the United Nations country teams in coordinating their responses in full consultation with local authorities.

Relief coordination is taking place in Gisenyi, Ruhengeri, and Kigali, Rwanda. UN helicopters have been conducting aerial reconnaissance of the volcano.

Members of the United Nations Disaster Assessment and Coordination Team are also en route to the affected area, along with specialists in volcanology.

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Lava from Mount Nyiragongo
Tomorrow, a United Nations Organization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo flight will leave Kinshasa for Kigali, carrying 28 metric tons of emergency supplies to meet the immediate needs of some 300,000 people who have been displaced by the disaster, Annan said.

It is expected that representatives from UNICEF, the UN's World Food Programme, USAID, OXFAM, ECHO and the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs will be joining the flight.

A team of Red Cross experts in logistics, health water and sanitation arrived in Kigali at late tonight and will meet up with the assessment team, already located in the Congo who will lead the organization's response to this emergency. In Rwanda the Spanish, German, Belgian and French Red Cross have offered support.

One of Africa's most active volcanoes, Nyiragongo is associated with the East African Rift and is part of the Virunga Volcanic Chain. It is in the Congo's Virunga National Park, not far from the border with Rwanda. The most recent eruption of Mt. Nyiragongo was in 1977, when the lava flow covered 20 square kilometers, killed 2,000 people, and destroyed 400 houses.