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Lava from the erupting volcano persists outside the city in the Congo

GOMA, Democratic Republic of the Congo – After a night of chaos and panic, the threat of an erupting volcano to a major Congo city appeared to be lessening on Sunday when a river of boiling lava halted on the city’s northern edge.

Tens of thousands of people fled the eastern city of Goma on Saturday night when lava began to spit from the flanks of nearby Mount Nyiragongo, one of the world’s most active volcanoes, kicking up clouds of noxious fumes and filling the sky with a menacing fiery glow.

After crossing a major highway, the lava advanced towards Goma, a two million town that was destroyed by the last eruption in 2002 when the boiling of lava smothered entire neighborhoods, killing several hundred people and leaving at least 100,000 homeless .

Unsure in which direction the lava was flowing, frightened residents crowded into vehicles or fled on foot, many clutched mattresses and bags with hastily collected things. At least five people died in accidents, authorities said as the city emptied.

Some residents headed east to the nearby border with Rwanda, where 3,500 had crossed by Sunday morning, while others fled west.

But the lava stalled in Buhene on the northern edge of Goma around 3 a.m., seven hours after the eruption was first reported. The exodus was reversed on Sunday morning when residents flooded back into Goma in hopes of checking to see if their homes had been damaged or looted.

“People are relieved, but also still scared,” said Albert Muihigi, 28. “The fear is still there because there are rumors of a second wave.”

Mr. Muihigi drove his motorcycle towards the lava on Saturday to see which way it was flowing so he could warn his family.

“People were scared,” he said, adding that two old people in his neighborhood had died of heart attacks when they heard that the volcano had erupted.

The feeling of apocalyptic drama on Saturday was compounded by thunder and lightning eruptions around the volcano as the ground shook with repeated tremors.

The United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Congo released a video of a reconnaissance flight in which a huge pool of red lava burned brightly in the darkness of the night. As the lava approached the city airport, the Congolese government ordered an evacuation of the city.

Authorities in Rwanda reported that by midnight 3,500 people had crossed the border, where many were sheltered in churches and empty schools.

But on Sunday lunchtime, the Congolese authorities announced that the worst was over.

“The city was spared,” General Constant Ndima, the regional military governor, said in a statement.

Even so, not all of Goma remained unharmed.

In Buhene, residents returned early Sunday to find that their homes had been swallowed up by a lava flow roughly half a mile wide that had engulfed an area the size of several city blocks.

Roofs peered through the flow of steaming lava, which was beginning to harden, though flames still licked through cracks in places.

Some residents lamented their losses and tried to salvage what they could from houses on the edge of the lava. For others from different parts of the city, the place was an instant curiosity.

Some collected pieces of lava that were still warm to keep as souvenirs or to take selfies. Others cooked corn on the cob and cassava on the hot rocks to amuse the crowd.

Nyiragongo, a 11,385 foot high mountain, has long threatened the area. In 1977, thousands were killed when an eruption sent lava down the mountainside at top speeds estimated to be more than 60 miles per hour.

Unusual even for an active volcano, it has a voluminous and persistent lava lake that is low in silica, making the lava liquid and flowing quickly when it erupts.

If the recent outbreak turns out to be a near miss, it will likely raise questions as to why the population did not receive a warning. Mount Nyiragongo has an early warning system in which experts monitor the volcano’s temperatures, gas emissions and seismic activities.

Earlier this year, the World Bank cut funding for the organization that operates the system, the Goma Volcano Observatory, on allegations of corruption. With the funding cut, volcanologists struggled to collect data.

In March, as the volcano’s crater filled with magma again, some warned of potentially catastrophic consequences.

“The population will not have time to evacuate and people will die,” volcanologist Honore Ciraba told Reuters.

During the 2002 outbreak, damage to Goma was compounded by exploding gas stations in the city. Those killed included elderly people who could not escape in time and looters who roamed empty houses.

Apparently, tankers learned a lesson from this mess and took fuel out of town on Saturday to avoid explosions. In the capital, Kinshasa, the government activated its evacuation plans for Goma.

The trembling of the volcano continued into Goma on Sunday afternoon, adding to feelings of concern among residents and concerns that the crisis was not entirely over. But Patrick Muyaya, a spokesman for the Congolese government, said it was over.

“Local authorities that have been monitoring the eruption overnight report that the lava flow has lost intensity,” he said on Twitter.

Finbarr O’Reilly reports from Goma, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Declan Walsh from Nairobi, Kenya. Austin Ramzy controlled coverage from Hong Kong and Steve Wembi from Kinshasa, Congo.

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