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Congo volcano devastation mounts

GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo -- A river of molten rock continued to pour from a volcano in Congo on Friday, a day after it erupted, killing 45, swallowing buildings and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee the city of Goma.

Hundreds of U.N. workers were also forced to flee in the 24 hours since waves of lava began forking from Mount Nyiragongo volcano through villages on its slopes, down through Goma itself and on to Lake Kivu on the Rwandan border.

Gaping holes opened up in Goma, normally a city of more than 500,000 but now virtually a ghost town, and molten rock reduced roads and buildings to fiery ash.

Fourteen villages in the path of the lava were said to have been incinerated.

CNN's Elina Fuhrman reports the town of Goma was destroyed and thousands were left homeless following the eruption of Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of Congo (January 18)

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"The smell of sulphur is everywhere, there are tremors every 10 minutes," Desire Bukasa, a radio controller for a U.N. agency in Goma, told Reuters.

"I'm trying to work out how to evacuate the town. There are fissures opening up in the town which billow smoke. People are scared."

Tens of thousands hurriedly left possessions behind and fled across the border into Rwanda as a two metre high surge of molten lava advanced from the 3,469-metre (11,380 foot) volcano, destroying everything in its path.

Officials said that an estimated 400,000 people had been displaced and that a third of the city was on fire.

Aid agencies were mustering their forces to help the refugees who fled over the border to Rwanda, said World Food Programme spokeswoman Brenda Barton.

The U.N. said it had evacuated 350 staff members from the town. Remaining behind were a skeletal staff from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and members of some nongovernmental organisations who were arranging relief efforts.

Goma residents were fleeing all night to the Rwandan city of Gisenyi, said Abdallah Ould Elba, head of the mission for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Goma. He also fled to Kigali after the eruption began.

"Maybe a third of Goma city, according to the people here, is burning," Elba told CNN. "The situation remains volatile."

He said the city's cathedral and "many" homes, all made of mud, were burned. He added that the compounds of the World Health Organisation, Save the Children, and other nongovernmental organisations were destroyed.

'Human catastrophe'

Residents said the border town of Gisenyi was also under threat with magma now only 4 km away.

"People in Gisenyi have closed the shops, even the market. They are just afraid that the same situation could occur there," said Aloys Bade Habinaza, a Rwandan journalist.

Military sources in Gisenyi said the number of people who had fled to Rwanda could be as high as 300,000.

"This is going to be a human catastrophe," said an official of a contingent of U.N. observers deployed in Goma as part of efforts to end a civil war.

"We have to find them shelter, put them up in camps. There's no electricity, no running water."

Overnight, the horizon was one long stretch of flames and smoke, marked from time to time by a flare in the sky as fuel stations exploded. Florian Westphal, a spokesman in Nairobi for the International Committee of the Red Cross, quoted colleagues in Goma as saying access was a big obstacle in relief efforts.

"Our warehouse and workshop garages with seven trucks have been destroyed. The airport is unusable and the port in Goma has been destroyed by an explosion," he said.

"The water company is no longer operational, two out of three pumping stations are out of order."

Walls of lava continued to snake down Goma's streets on Friday, while parts of the runway at Goma's airport had disappeared under the smoking tide.

Kerosene storage facilities at the airport burned for a time. The U.N. evacuated all its staff from a base near the airport on Thursday.

A Congolese officer told Reuters that Congolese troops had started looting Goma city, but Rwandan soldiers were trying to restrain them.

The Nyiragongo volcano is one of eight on the borders of Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda.

The region is dense with tropical forests and home to rare mountain gorillas which inhabit the slopes of the dormant volcanoes.

Only two of the volcanoes are active -- Nyamuragira, which erupted early last year causing no casualties -- and Nyiragongo.

In 1977, up to 2,000 people died when a 1,000 metre-wide lake of lava burst through fissures in Nyiragongo's flanks at 60 km (40 miles) an hour, which experts said was the fastest lava flow on record.

Nyiragongo was last active in 1994, when a lava lake in its crater reappeared, casting an orange light onto clouds at night.


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