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Congo’s Nyiragongo volcano erupts, causing thousands to flee; at least 15 dead

The Mount Nyiragongo volcano, located north of Goma in the Congo, erupted on May 22, sparking panic among the city’s residents. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Alex Miles/AFP/Getty/The Washington Post)

NAIROBI — Fifteen people have died in a volcano eruption in Congo late Saturday that turned the sky above a fearsome red and sent thousands fleeing from a city that was devastated by lava flows in 1977 and 2002.

Government spokesman Patrick Muyaya said on Sunday night that two people had burned to death in the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo, nine died in a traffic accident while attempting to flee and four prisoners who had tried to escape their cells were also killed. He said property damage was reported in 17 villages surrounding the volcano, including Goma’s suburbs.

Local journalists reported the still-smoking molten rock had stopped just short of the outskirts of Goma, a picturesque lakeside city that is eastern Congo’s hub for trade and transport, averting greater disaster.

Goma residents remember well the eruption in January 2002, when swift-moving lava and its accompanying carbon dioxide fumes left by some counts hundreds dead and more than 100,000 homeless. Well over 1 million people live near the active crater.

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A din of people and honking horns could be heard in videos taken early Sunday of the red-glowing eruption shared on social media. Rwandan officials said more than 3,500 Congolese people had sought refuge across the border in Rwanda.

“Panic spread as we were in contact with the residents of the north of the city who from their roofs could see the path of the lava as it made its way to the airport,” said Patient Iraguha, a resident of Rwanda who works in Goma.

“Information was circulating in all directions,” he told The Washington Post Sunday from Rwanda. “During this time no official statement dictated any instructions, and nothing came out on the radio like on national television to give the right information on the direction of the lava and the escape route to take.”

The coronavirus pandemic has created unusual uncertainty at the Congo-Rwanda border crossing at Goma, which is one of the world’s busiest, seeing tens of thousands of people cross on foot each day. While the border remains open, confusion over temperature checks and other monitoring measures put in place added to the chaos, Iraguha said.

Goma’s volcano observatory, which is supposed to provide quick warnings of increased activity in Nyiragongo and its companion volcano Nyamulagira, has been hobbled by the World Bank’s recent decision to not renew funding. A Reuters report in March linked that decision to allegations of embezzlement at the observatory. The observatory’s director told a local radio station on Sunday that it had not conducted its work between November 2020 and April of this year, when provisional funding from a different source was obtained.

The U.N. mission MONUSCO tweeted that it was running reconnaissance flights and posted footage of a fiery landscape.

Congo’s President Félix Tshisekedi cut short a trip to Europe to return home Sunday to coordinate aid.

Muyaya, the government spokesman, said the prime minister had called an emergency meeting and authorities would set more plans in motion Sunday.

Muyaya urged people to avoid engaging with “everything that is being said in social media” in the face of an “extremely serious situation.” He vowed that officials would do their best to keep people updated and manage a crisis that “touches us all.”

In one especially deadly eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in 1977, around 2,000 people were reported killed.

“This is the most dangerous volcano in the world!” volcanologist Dario Tedesco told Science magazine last year.

Knowles and Villegas reported from Washington. Rebecca Tan contributed to this report.

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