This aerial view shows debris engulfing buildings in Bushara village, Nyiragongo area, near Goma, on May 23, 2021, after a volcanic eruption of Mount Nyiragongo, that sent thousands fleeing during the night in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo AFP
A river of red-hot lava came to a halt on the outskirts of Goma on Sunday, sparing the city in eastern DR Congo from disaster after the nighttime eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano sent thousands of terrified residents fleeing in panic.
Fire and fumes emanated from the blackish molten rock as it swallowed up houses, heading towards Goma airport on the shores of Lake Kivu and leaving smouldering wreckage in its wake, an AFP correspondent said.
But the military governor of North Kivu province said "the city was spared" by a matter of a few hundred metres (yards) after "the lava halted near Buhene on the outskirts of Goma".
Nine people were nonetheless killed in accidents during the evacuations, said General Constant Ndima, appointed governor early this month when the province was placed under a "state of siege" to combat violence by armed groups.
Another four people were shot dead while trying to escape Goma's Munzenze prison, according to local military spokesman Guillaume Njike Kaiko.
Many families slept on pavements surrounded by their belongings under a night sky turned red by the eruption of Africa's most active volcano.
"They lost everything... hundreds of people," one resident said.
Pope Francis offered a special prayer for Goma during his weekly Angelus prayer at the Vatican Sunday, when the area felt around a dozen tremors.
Ndima said 7,000 people fled overnight to neighbouring Rwanda before returning.
"All the Goma residents returned home without incident this morning after spending the night in emergency shelters which Rwanda set up, mainly schools," said Rwanda's minister for emergency management, Marie Solange Kayisire.
She spoke to AFP from the town of Rubavu near the border.
"Only about 100 of them are still in Rwanda but they are people who have cars who spent the night in hotels," Kayisire added.
Despite a relative return to calm, Goma's 1.5 million residents remained wary.
"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.
Tourists who were near the crater when the volcano erupted are safe, the Congolese Institute for the Conservation of Nature (ICCN) tweeted, adding that the rare mountain gorillas in the Virunga National Park, where Mount Nyiragongo is located, were also not threatened by the eruption.
DR Congo President Felix Tshisekedi said he would cut short a trip to Europe "to supervise the coordination of aid".
General Ndima said MONUSCO, the UN mission in the country, along with NGOs and international organisations in the DRC, would hold an emergency meeting Sunday with local and regional authorities.
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 cut in large parts of the city as residents began fleeing.
Tens of thousands of people, many carrying mattresses, food and parcels, streamed towards the Rwandan border, while others headed west towards Sake in the neighbouring Masisi region.
Resident Richard Bahati recalled the volcano's eruption in 2002.
"The volcano devastated all our homes and all our possessions. That's why I'm scared again this time," he said.
- Last flights -
Several planes, belonging to MONUSCO and private companies, took off on Saturday evening, according to an airport source.
In a May 10 report, the Goma Vulcanology Observatory warned of increased seismic activity around the volcano, one of six in the region.
The Observatory's Adalbert Muhindo advised continued vigilance as tremors were continuing.
Nyiragongo last erupted on January 17, 2002, killing more than 100 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.
Nyiragongo's deadliest eruption, in 1977, claimed more than 600 lives.
It has not been monitored for the past seven months because of a lack of funding, according to the head of the local vulcanology observatory.