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CONGO: Half-a-million people flee molten rock

AID workers were desperately scrambling on Saturday to help almost half a million people who fled a volcanic eruption in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as the country issued an urgent appeal for foreign aid.

Aid agencies in both the DRC and neighbouring Rwanda rushed to provide food, shelter and medical assistance to an estimated 450 000 displaced people, amid unconfirmed reports that around 40 people may have died as a result of the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo, which began spewing lava early Thursday.

Aside from destroying vast numbers of houses in Goma, the eruption also destroyed the town's waterworks, cut its electricity supply and damaged a key section of the airport runway.

DRC President Joseph Kabila called on "all of the DRC's friends, UN organisations, the Organisation for African Unity (OAU) and the Southern African Development Community (SADC) for massive aid to be given to the population."

He announced he would send a government mission including senior ministers to Goma, without delay, in response to the unfolding humanitarian crisis spilling over into Rwanda.

"More than 600 000 of our compatriots have been left homeless, thrown out into the cold without food, without drinking water, electricity or medicine, and exposed to all sorts of risks to their safety," a cabinet statement said.

The government said it had freed up 450-million Congolese francs (about 1,6-million euros, $1,4-million) to try to help those most in need.
On the road leading east out of Gisenyi in Rwanda, aid agencies including Oxfam, Medecins sans Frontieres and the International Rescue Committee were handing out emergency rations to refugees from Goma.
A DRC government representative in Brussels meanwhile underlined how the eruption was just the latest test for the east African country.

"400 000 Congolese people are now on the road. It's one tragedy too many for our country," said representative Kin-Kiey Mulumba.

The United Nations Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) warned that the lack of drinking water posed the greatest threat to the displaced population, remembering the 1977 eruption of Mount Nyiragongo, which not only killed 2 000 people but was followed by a major cholera epidemic.

David Stevenson, the World Food Programme's deputy director for Rwanda and the current head of the humanitarian operation said: "I think it is a crisis but one we can respond to in Rwanda" where there is easy access to those affected.

"In Goma, access seems to be more of an issue," he said.
Meanwhile, experts warned of an explosive gas risk caused by lava flowing into Lake Kivu, which straddles the border between the DRC and Rwanda, with molten rock stirring up reserves of methane that lay dissolved in the lake.

"We are in an extremely dangerous crisis situation, and we expect very difficult times in the days and weeks ahead," said Andrei Neacsu of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies in Geneva.

Vulcanologist Dieudonne Wafula, who had earlier said the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo, located 10 kilometres north of Goma, appeared to be over for the time being, said there was still a possibility of further eruptions.

"There are still lava movements in the centre of the flow," he said. "That means there is still pressure in the eruption zone, on the sides of the volcano."

There were still no official estimates of how many people might have been killed by the lava flow, although it was clear that a number of people had died in violence linked to looting that broke out as people fled.
Aid officials in Gisenyi said they believed some 40 people may have died, but this could not be independently confirmed.

Rwanda, which took in many of those who fled Goma, appealed for aid, and notably for food, water and blankets.

"The Rwandan government is making every effort but it cannot get through this gigantic task on its own," the Rwandan foreign ministry said in a statement broadcast on national radio.

Officials said they were preparing for a possible total of 650 000 displaced people if the eruption continued.

In addition to an estimated 500 000 displaced people around Goma, there were fears that some 150 000 inhabitants of Gisenyi might have to be evacuated.

Outside Africa, the United States, Germany, Britain and Belgium -- the DRC's former colonial ruler -- were among countries offering emergency aid.

The disaster added to an underlying humanitarian crisis in the region, which is swollen with refugees in the wake of both genocidal fighting in Rwanda in 1994 and the wars that have torn apart the DRC, a huge mineral-rich country that was formerly known as Zaire.

But despite warnings, some people who fled the initial lava flows were heading back to Goma on Saturday.

Undeterred by a night of powerful earth tremors, safety warnings from the DRC rebel group which controls the town or even sporadic gunfire, many were returning to see what was left of their homes and possessions. - AFP

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