The government said it was putting an evacuation plan into place, but the announcement was made several hours after the sky turned a fiery red, and many already had fled on foot in hopes of crossing the Rwandan border post just outside town.
The government of the Democratic of Congo has ordered the evacuation of the eastern city of Goma after the eruption of the Mount Nyiragongo volcano overlooking the border city.
Even before the official announcement on Saturday, thousands of people had started filling the streets and carrying what they could as they headed out of the city, which has already suffered from previous eruptions.
But later Saturday, Communications Minister Patrick Muyaya tweeted: "The evacuation plan for the city of #Goma has been activated.
"The government is discussing the urgent measures to take at present," he added.
The evacuation plan was activated after an emergency meeting of the government to discuss the situation, said the minister.
The first departures from the city came earlier Saturday even before Mount Nyiragongo erupted spewing red fumes into the night sky.
The military governor of North Kivu province, of which Goma is capital, "confirmed the eruption of the Nyiragongo volcano ... at around 7:00 pm" while appealing for calm.
"Investigations are underway and people must follow the guidance of civil protection" units, General Constant Ndima said.
Five people were reportedly killed in a car crash when fleeing, journalist Byobe Malenga told TRT World.
Lava flow heading for Goma
A lava flow reached the airport of the DRC's eastern city of Goma, an official said.
"The situation is deteriorating," an official from Virunga National Park – where the erupting volcano is located – said in a message to staff, which AFP was copied in on.
"Besides the lava flow in the north east (Kibumba / Rwanda), the flow is also descending on the town. It has now reached the airport," he said.
The official added that the lava flow was likely to reach the shores of Lake Kivu.
"The eruption of Nyiragongo is similar to the eruption in 2002," he added, asking all local residents near the airport to "evacuate without delay".
He said that at this stage, "the other districts of the city were not in danger" and the lava was unlikely to reach those areas.
Mt. Nyiragongo in Goma, (eastern) DRC erupts as we speak. What a crazy volcano... pic.twitter.com/MYodnf98WU— Martin L. Kalere 🇨🇩 (@Kalereops) May 22, 2021
High lava fountains
People grabbed mattresses and other belongings and fled towards the frontier with neighbouring Rwanda as a red glow filled the sky above the city Saturday evening.
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 the city towards the nearby border post with Rwanda, while others headed west towards Sake, in the neighbouring Congolese region of Masisi.
"The sky has turned red," one resident, Carine Mbala, told AFP by telephone.
"There is a smell of sulphur. In the distance you can see giant flames coming out of the mountain.
"But there has not been any earthquake," she added.
"People are leaving or preparing to leave," another resident told AFP, as the streets began filling up, some carrying as many of their belongings as they could.
"I am taking the children and getting into the car. There is a risk that the lava will flow on Goma," another said.
For the moment, there is no sign of a flow of lava from the city, the correspondent said.
Nyiragongo last erupted in 2002, killing 250 people and making 120,000 people homeless after the lava flowed into Goma.
"The government is closely monitoring the situation in Goma," Congo's government spokesman, Patrick Muyaya, said on Twitter.
"The local authorities are currently evaluating the situation with the volcanological observatory in Goma ... The population is encouraged to remain calm."
Volcano watchers have been worried that the volcanic activity observed in the last five years at Nyiragongo mirrors that in the years preceding eruptions in 1977 and 2002.
Volcanologists at the Goma Volcano Observatory (OVG), which monitors Nyiragongo, have struggled to make basic checks since the World Bank cut funding amid embezzlement allegations.