DR Congo’s government said Saturday that the eruption of a second volcano it had announced hours earlier was a “false alarm,” the scare coming a week after Mount Nyiragongo roared back into life, causing devastation and sparking a mass exodus.
The government had said that Murara volcano had a “low intensity” eruption on Saturday morning, sending lava flowing into an uninhabited area of Virunga Park, a wildlife reserve home to a quarter of the world’s critically endangered mountain gorillas.
Murara is a small volcano considered to be a crater of Mount Nyamuragira, which along with Nyiragongo is known for strong volcanic activity.
However the communications ministry then issued another statement saying “false alarm on Nyamuragira”.
“A plane has just flown over the entire area on the sides of this volcano. No eruption was observed,” it added.
“It was instead intense activities of carbonising wood into charcoal, the smoke of which was perceived as volcanic activity.”
Aerial images of Nyamuragira taken Saturday morning and viewed by AFP showed just a few wisps of white smoke in the volcano’s crater.
Murara rises 25 kilometres (15 miles) north of Goma, capital of North Kivu province.
– 400,000 evacuated –
Located on the shores of Lake Kivu in the shadow of Nyiragongo, Africa’s most active volcano, the city has lived in fear since it erupted last Saturday.
The strato-volcano spewed rivers of lava that claimed nearly three dozen lives and destroyed the homes of some 20,000 people before the eruption stopped.
Hundreds of aftershocks have rocked the region since and around 400,000 people have been evacuated from Goma.
Scientists have warned of a potentially catastrophic scenario — a “limnic eruption” which occurs when lava combines with a deep lake and spews out lethal, suffocating gas across a potentially large area.
The Goma Volcano Observatory (OVG) said in its latest report on Saturday that 61 earthquakes had shaken the area in the previous 24 hours.
The quakes were “consistent with the continued movement of magma in the Nyiragongo fissure system towards Lake Kivu”, it said.
“Several information sources still confirm the presence of magma under the ground in Goma and under the northern end of the lake.”
However the OVG report said that a “landslide or large earthquake destabilising the deep waters of the lake causing the emergence of dissolved gases” was now much less likely, while it still “cannot be excluded”.
A report on an emergency meeting Friday said 80,000 households — around 400,000 inhabitants — had moved out on Thursday following a “preventative” evacuation order.
Goma was quiet on Saturday, a handful of vehicles on the streets which were semi-deserted and only some small shops were open, an AFP journalist said.
– ‘Urgent, global support’ –
Most people have headed for Sake, around 25 kilometres (15 miles) west of Goma where tens of thousands are now gathered, or the Rwandan border in the northeast, while others have fled by boat across Lake Kivu.
Late Friday, Rwandan President Paul Kagame said those fleeing needed “urgent, global support”.
Aid efforts are being organised to provide drinking water, food and other supplies, and workers are helping to reunite children who became separated from their families.
Nearly 10,000 people are taking refuge in Bukavu on the southern bank of Lake Kivu, according to governor Theo Ngwabidje, many of them in host families.
Nearly 3,500 metres (11,500 feet) high, Nyiragongo straddles the East African Rift tectonic divide.
Its last major eruption, in 2002, claimed around 100 lives and the deadliest eruption on record killed more than 600 people in 1977.
Volcanologists say the worst-case scenario is an eruption under the lake.
This could release hundreds of thousands of tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) that are currently dissolved in the water’s depths.
The gas would rise to the surface of the lake, forming an invisible cloud that would linger at ground level and displace oxygen, asphyxiating life.
In 1986, one of these limnic eruptions killed more than 1,700 people and thousands of cattle at Lake Nyos in western Cameroon. AFP