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Thousands Flee Eastern Congo Volcano

January 18, 2002

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GOMA, Congo (AP) _ Fires burned out of control Friday after a nearby volcano sent 100-foot-wide rivers of lava flowing through the center of town and into Lake Kivu, forcing as many as 500,000 people to flee to Rwanda.

Many fires started when lava ignited gasoline stored in buildings and garages in this eastern Congo town.

Tens of thousands of residents fled across the border to Gisenyi in neighboring Rwanda to escape the lava and violent earth tremors, and local officials reportedly shot some people trying to loot shops.

There were no immediate reports of casualties, but concern was growing because at least 14 villages north of Goma were destroyed by three rivers of lava flowing from Mount Nyiragongo, 30 miles to the north.

``There is still volcanic activity, but a considerable number of people are coming back into the town,″ said Peter Hornsby, a logistics officer for U.N. peacekeepers in Goma. ``There is still lava flowing into the town and outside the town, basically it’s cut a swath 110-to-200 feet wide through the town.″

Adolphe Onusumba, head of Rwandan-backed rebels who control the region around Goma, said there was an urgent need for clean water.

``We appeal for help from anyone who can help us with clean water because the lake is deeply polluted by the lava, and it is the main supply of water for the population.″

Many of the rebel officials who fled the town returned Friday to assess the damage.

``It seemed as though the whole town of Goma left on foot. They were streaming by on the road in front of my house, and at least 50 people slept at my gate,″ said Rosamund Carr, a Gisenyi resident living along the border.

A Rwandan official, who requested anonymity, said as many as 500,000 people may have poured into Gisenyi and the government was working with the Red Cross and the U.N. refugee agency to help them.

``The sky was totally scarlet, there were terrible earthquakes, and one was so bad that there is a crack in the ceiling of my house,″ said Carr, an American who runs an orphanage.

``We had no sleep, the children were so frightened, and the flames seemed to be about two yards from the orphanage.″

By morning, the tremors had died down from ``about one every 40 seconds to one an hour,″ she said.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, MONUC, evacuated 350 U.N. international staff members, U.N. spokesman Fred Eckhard said Thursday in New York.

The United Nations has sent several thousand military observers and peacekeepers into Congo following a cease-fire in the civil war that started in Goma in 1998.

The U.N. mission said lava from the erupting volcano reached the staging point for its operations in eastern Congo.

``The airstrip opposite the base was cut in half by the lava, which is also approaching Goma’s main fuel depot,″ a statement said.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan’s special representative for Congo, Namanga Ngongi, has sent a team led by MONUC deputy force commander, Gen. Roberto Martinelli, to Kigali to confer with evacuated staff.

Martinelli also will thank the Rwandan government for opening its border, the statement said.

Brenda Barton, spokeswoman for the World Food Program in Nairobi, Kenya, said the U.N. agency had earmarked 200 tons of food to help those displaced by the eruption and would bring in more from neighboring Uganda.

``We are not concerned about supplies, we are not concerned about where they are settling and for how long,″ Barton said.

The 11,381-foot Nyiragongo is on the western end of the Virunga chain of eight volcanoes stretching eastward into Rwanda. It last erupted in 1977.

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