Volcano victims take to boats to escape lava

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The Independent Online

As a relentless river of burning lava flowed through the central African town of Goma for the third day running, aid workers scrambled yesterday to avert a humanitarian catastrophe for up to half a million people made homeless by the volcano disaster.

As a relentless river of burning lava flowed through the central African town of Goma for the third day running, aid workers scrambled yesterday to avert a humanitarian catastrophe for up to half a million people made homeless by the volcano disaster.

Molten rock has engulfed some streets in Goma, in eastern Congo, to a depth of 10ft before flowing into Lake Kivu, sending up clouds of steam. "There is no food, no water, no sanitation. We are like animals," said Richard Mwambo, a teacher, before boarding a dangerously overcrowded ferry for the 12-hour journey along the lake to the Rwandan town of Bukavu.

Doctors in Gisenyi, just across the border from Goma in Rwanda, where at least 300,000 people have fled, struggled in packed wards to cope with burns victims.

Fears of a cholera epidemic are growing, due to a shortage of drinking water. Many refugees were forced to bathe in Lake Kivu, which has been badly polluted by the volcanic outflow. Nearly all slept outdoors, either on the side of the road or under public shelters such as petrol stations. United Nations workers reported at least 40 deaths, but the toll is expected to rise.

A steady stream of magma continued to pour from a 1,500ft-long gash in the flank of the 11,365ft Mount Nyiragongo, burning wide swathes of rainforest and sending birds and animals fleeing for safety. Further downhill, the lava flow that first erupted on Thursday continued to crawl through the countryside, where it has destroyed at least 14 villages, before passing through Goma and emptying into Lake Kivu.

Between half and three-quarters of Goma has been damaged and up to 10,000 homes destroyed, according to aid workers. "The destruction is staggering," said a cameraman who flew over the town by helicopter yesterday.

Earlier fears that the lava flow could displace a cloud of deadly methane from Lake Kivu were discounted by a local expert. "The amount of lava going into the lake is not big, and it is not going very deep," said Jap de Vos, who has been tapping the gas for a local brewery.

Despite the dangers, several hundred residents of Goma returned home yesterday. Some complained that there was no food or shelter in Gisenyi, but most simply collected belongings and returned across the border to the Rwandan town. The Rwandan Interior Minister pledged his country's support, saying he felt a "moral obligation" to help.

A spokesman for the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, said he will visit the volcano refugees as part of a tour of central Africa with his French counterpart, Hubert Vedrine, next week. The main purpose of the visit is to urge an end to the long-running war in Congo.

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