Goma (DR Congo) (AFP) -
A river of boiling lava came to a halt on the outskirts of Goma Sunday, sparing the city in eastern DR Congo from disaster after the nighttime eruption of Mount Nyiragongo sent thousands of terrified residents fleeing in panic.
Fire and strong fumes emanated from the blackish molten rock as it swallowed up houses, heading towards Goma airport on the shores of Lake Kivu, an AFP correspondent said.
But the military governor of North Kivu province said 'the city was spared' after 'the lava halted near Buhene on the outskirts of Goma'.
Five people were killed in accidents during the evacuations, said General Constant Ndima, who was appointed governor early this month when the province was placed under a 'state of siege' to combat violence by armed groups.
'Several thefts from shops and an attempted escape of inmates' from the city's prison were reported, but 'the situation is under control,' he said.
Thousands had fled during the night and many families slept on pavements surrounded by their belongings under a night sky turned red by fire and fumes.
And around a dozen earth tremors were felt in the early hours.
Ndima said around 7,000 people had fled to neighouring Rwanda, but had begun to return early on Sunday.
Others who sought refuge in the Sasisi region to the southwest 'also are beginning to return to the city centre', he said.
Goma appeared relatively calm as dawn broke, but people said they are still wary.
'The situation seems to have calmed down for the moment,' one resident said.
'But people are still scared. The authorities still haven't made any official announcement so far this morning,' he added.
'There is a smell of sulphur. In the distance you can see giant flames coming out of the mountain,' one resident, Carine Mbala, told AFP.
- 'Not sure it's over' -
'People are wondering whether the volcano has stopped, or whether it will continue, whether the lava will reappear,' another resident said.
A few cars were on seen on the streets, but no police or military presence was visible.
'We're not convinced that the eruption is over in just a day. We're waiting,' said one man.
On Saturday, Communications Minister Patrick Muyaya had said that the government had activated an evacuation plan and was 'discussing the urgent measures to take at present.'
The president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, Felix Tshisekedi, had said he would 'interrupt his stay in Europe to return home this Sunday to supervise the coordination of aid'.
General Ndima said Monusco, the UN mission in the country, NGOs and international organisations in the DRC will hold an emergency meeting later Sunday with local and regional authorities to discuss the crisis.
The first departures from Goma city came even before the official confirmation that Mount Nyiragongo had erupted at around 7:00 pm Saturday, spewing red fumes into the night sky.
- 'I'm scared again' -
Power was already cut in large parts of the city when hundreds of residents began leaving their homes.
Some headed out of the southern end of Goma towards the nearby border post with Rwanda, while others headed west towards Sake, in the neighbouring Congolese region of Masisi.
Resident Richard Bahati said he was incredibly worried about the eruption: 'I lived through this volcano problem in 2002.
'The volcano had devastated all our homes and all our possessions. That's why I'm scared again this time.'
Electricity was cut off in a large part of the city, with thousands of people -- encumbered with mattresses, food and parcels -- heading towards the Rwandan border.
'There are a lot of people on the road, a lot of cars, it's an escape,' one man with his family in his car told AFP.
'It is moving at a snail's pace, on three or four lanes,' he said, adding: 'There are children, women, old people who are on foot and the rain is coming. It's complicated.'
- Last flights -
Several planes, belonging to Monusco and private companies, took off in the evening, according to an airport source, with a local adding they had also seen the unusual nighttime activity.
In a May 10 report, the Goma Vulcanology Observatory warned that seismic activity around the volcano had increased and warranted careful monitoring.
The last time Nyiragongo erupted was January 17, 2002, killing more than a hundred people and covering almost all of the eastern part of Goma with lava, including half of the airport's landing strip.
During that eruption, the victims were mostly sick or elderly abandoned to their fate in the northern districts of the city with some looting also taking place.