Thousands have fled the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo) as a river of boiling lava mercifully came to a halt on the outskirts of Goma Sunday, sparing the city in the country's east from disaster.
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 Agence France-Presse (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 pavement surrounded by their belongings under a night sky turned red by fire and fumes. Around a dozen tremors were felt in the early hours.
Ndima said around 7,000 people had fled to neighboring 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 center," 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 sulfur. In the distance you can see giant flames coming out of the mountain," one resident, Carine Mbala, told AFP.
Officials said the lava had reached Goma city airport although residents said it had stopped at the edge of the facility.
"People are wondering whether the volcano has stopped, or whether it will continue, whether the lava will reappear," one resident said. A few cars were 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."
Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi had said he would "interrupt his stay in Europe to return home this Sunday to supervise the coordination of aid." By early Sunday, between 5,000 and 7,000 people had arrived in neighboring Rwanda, according to the country's national broadcaster.
The Rwanda Broadcast Agency tweeted photos of those arriving in Rubavu district but said early Sunday that the evacuees had already begun heading home.
"At the moment, the Congolese who had evacuated into Rwanda because of the Nyiragongo volcanic eruption are returning to their homeland. It appears that the eruption has stopped," it tweeted.
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 neighboring 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."
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 Jan. 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.