- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 22, 2002

GOMA, Congo Lava flows from a volcanic eruption ignited a gas station yesterday, killing between 30 and 50 people trying to siphon fuel from tanks, witnesses said.

A massive fireball erupted at 8:30 a.m., leaving a huge black cloud hanging for hours over Goma. One-third of the town's 500,000 residents stayed in Goma after Thursday's eruption.

Soldiers of the rebel organization controlling Goma said 30 people were killed. The rebels would not identify themselves.

But Chiza Barabara, a witness living near the station, said 50 people died in the initial explosion.

He said the victims were trying to steal gas and diesel fuel when the elevated tanks ignited.

Two women and two children were severely injured and taken to a local clinic, he said.

More than a dozen 50-gallon barrels in the gas-station storeroom continued to explode for hours, sending up 100-foot flames amid huge fireballs.

The 330-by-16 foot building was engulfed in flames. No bodies were visible outside the building.

The station was located near one of the main lava flows, but the lava had cooled enough for people to walk across it. They were using plastic containers to retrieve the fuel and carry it back.

Residents of Goma fled to neighboring Rwanda after Thursday's eruption of Mount Nyiragongo, which unleashed three lava flows that destroyed 40 percent of the town.

There have been unconfirmed reports that up to 40 people were killed in the eruption, but Congolese and U.N. officials say no one has any firm information about casualties.

Tens of thousands of people returned home yesterday from Rwanda, picking their way over the crust of the lava and dodging rivers of molten rock. Goma streets teemed with people, and shops reopened.

"I want to return home because my house is still there and I have heard that the lava has stopped," said Augustin Mirenge, a Goma school teacher. "The weather is so cold, we can't go to [the camp]. It's in a forest, so the conditions are harsh and there are many mosquitos."

Francois Goemans, a spokesman for the European Union relief agency ECHO, said electricity was restored in many parts of town.

The Red Cross delivered chlorine to one of Goma's water treatment plants, and Mr. Goemans said the water was "bacteriologically safe," but tests to check the mineral safety were under way.

Working with the Rwandan-backed rebels, the International Rescue Committee began distributing food and fresh water to Goma residents yesterday.

But Laura Melo, spokeswoman for the U.N. World Food Program, said U.N. officials still were concerned that the volcano could erupt again.

"We're not going to distribute food in Goma itself as long as we don't have assurances of the safety of the situation," Miss Melo said.

U.N. officials were planning to distribute aid on Goma's outskirts, outside of what is considered the danger zone, she said.

Still, U.N. officials said they hoped more Congolese refugees would report to the tented refugee camps set up for them 12 miles inside Rwanda to receive aid.

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