GOMA, Congo – Mount Nyiragongo in Congo erupted for the first time in nearly two decades on Saturday, turning the night sky a fiery red and sending lava down a major highway as panicked residents tried to flee Goma, a city of nearly 2 million inhabitants.
There was no immediate information about the victims, but witnesses said lava had already engulfed a highway that connects Goma to the town of Beni in North Kivu province.
The last eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in 2002 killed hundreds and smeared airport runways with lava. More than 100,000 people were left homeless in the process, adding to the fear in Goma on Saturday evening.
“We are already in total psychosis,” resident Zacharie Paluku told The Associated Press. “Everyone is afraid; people run away. We really don’t know what to do. “
Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi said he would return home from Europe earlier than expected on Sunday to help coordinate relief efforts.
The government said an evacuation plan was being activated, but the official announcement came hours after the sky turned bright red, and many had already fled on foot in hopes of crossing the Rwandan border post just outside the city. Car horns honked and motorcycle taxis spun as people panicked to escape.
Rwandan immigration authorities have reported that some 3,000 people have already officially crossed Congo to escape the volcano eruption, according to the national television station.
The UN peacekeeping mission, known as MONUSCO, tweeted dramatic footage of the city, claiming it was conducting reconnaissance flights over Goma where it maintains a large base.
“The lava does not seem to be heading towards the city of Goma. We remain on alert, ”he said.
Some sought refuge in boats on Lake Kivu, while others fled to Mount Goma, the highest point in the metropolitan area.
The lack of immediate announcements from the authorities and conflicting accounts circulating on social media only added to the sense of chaos in Goma.
Authorities at the Goma Volcano Observatory initially said it was the nearby Nyamulagira volcano that erupted. The two volcanoes are located approximately 8 miles from each other.
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Volcanologist Charles Balagizi said the observatory’s report was based on the direction the lava appeared to be flowing, which was toward Rwanda rather than Goma.
Goma sits along the border between Congo and neighboring Rwanda, and is a regional hub for many humanitarian agencies in the region, as well as for UN MONUSCO.
The erupting volcano is also close to Virunga National Park, home to some of the last mountain gorillas in the world.
While Goma is home to many UN peacekeepers and aid workers, much of eastern Congo is also threatened by a myriad of armed groups vying for control of the region’s mineral resources.