%mlink(STRY:; PHOTO:GOM108-011902; AUDIO:%)

GOMA, Congo (AP) _ A river of lava flowed through the center of Goma on Saturday, burning everything in its path, creating a 5-foot-high wall of cooling stone and leaving a half-million people homeless.

Officials were trying to determine the number of casualties amid concerns there could be many dead. At least two infants died in the refugee crisis created by the eruption in eastern Congo.

The 130-foot-wide path of molten rock made a fishhook pattern as it rolled down Mount Nyiragongo, 30 miles north of Goma, passed through the central business district and flowed into Lake Kivu, sending sulfuric smoke and steam into the air.

Across the Rwandan border, in neighboring Gisenyi, dawn broke with the sound of hundreds of crying, hungry children. Refugees bathed in the lake, the water putrid from the lava.

``There is no food, no water, no sanitation. We are here like animals,'' said Richard Mwambo, a teacher who fled Goma and was preparing to board a dangerously overcrowded ferry to Bukavu, a four-hour trip down Lake Kivu. ``(We are) afraid of dying. If we are to die, it is better to die in Congo, not Rwanda.''

Maj. Pierre Pinchart, the military attache at the Belgian embassy in Kigali, Rwanda, said the situation could become a major humanitarian disaster, with two infants already dead from starvation and dehydration. He said refugees are drinking lake water, which could trigger a cholera epidemic.

``The lake water is poison, because everything from the city is going in the lake,'' Pinchart said.

A Belgian relief plane would bring water purification systems to Gisenyi on Sunday, he said.

More than a dozen earthquakes shook the region every hour, some of them severe enough to send people running into the street in panic. Hundreds of thousands of Goma residents, ordered to abandon their impoverished city as it burned, slept outdoors in Gisenyi, seeking shelter under porches.

More than half of Goma already has been consumed by lava. A fire crackled at the art deco Black and White Dance Club and propane gas tanks exploded throughout the town. Only a handful of police patrolled the otherwise empty city.

The night sky glowed scarlet from the fires, and international aid workers withdrew 30 miles from the city out of fear that large quantities of methane gas existing naturally in the lake would explode or bubble up, killing people close to shore.

Stephen Johnson, of the U.N. office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs, said from New York there were no indications that the eruptions which began Thursday had finished.

He said about 100,000 people fled west into Congo, while 300,000 others crossed over to Rwanda in the east. The lava cut the only road connecting the two sides.

Adolphe Onusumba, head of the Rwandan-backed rebels controlling the Goma region, implored residents not to return to their homes.

``We are declaring a state of emergency and urge people not to return to their homes because of the losses,'' he said in a radio broadcast from the devastated city.

Brian Baptie, a volcano seismologist at the British Geological Survey in Edinburgh, Scotland, said Nyiragongo is one of the most active volcanos in Africa.

``Although the lava moves quite fast going down the flanks, once on flat land it moves quite slowly so people can get out of the way if they have warning,'' he said. ``It's the refugee problem created that's the big cause for concern.''

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

A U.N. official who evacuated civilian and military staff from Goma to Kigali said the deputy force commander, Gen. Roberto Martinelli, arrived there Friday and would travel to Gisenyi and Goma on Saturday to assess the situation.

Britain will give $2.9 million to help victims, with $1.4 million already allocated to humanitarian agencies in Congo, International Development Secretary Clare Short said.

The 11,381-foot Nyiragongo and 10,022-foot Nyamulagira volcanoes are the only active ones in the Virunga chain of eight volcanoes running east into Rwanda. Nyiragongo last erupted seriously in January 1977.