Congo’s Mount Nyiragongo erupted for the first time in nearly two decades Saturday, turning the night sky a fiery red and sending lava onto a major highway as panicked residents tried to flee Goma, a city of nearly 2 million.
There was no immediate word on any casualties, but witnesses said that lava already had engulfed one highway that connects Goma with the city of Beni in North Kivu province.
Mount Nyiragongo’s last eruption, in 2002, left hundreds dead and coated airport runways in lava. More than 100,000 people were left homeless in the aftermath, adding to the fear in Goma on Saturday night.
“We are already in a total psychosis,” resident Zacharie Paluku told The Associated Press. “Everyone is afraid; people are running away. We really don’t know what to do.”
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. Car horns honked and motorcycle taxis weaved as people attempted to escape in a panic.
Rwandan immigration authorities reported that some 3,000 people already had officially crossed over from Congo to escape the volcano's eruption, according to the national broadcaster.
The U.N. peacekeeping mission known as MONUSCO tweeted dramatic footage of the city alit, saying it was conducting reconnaissance flights over Goma where it maintains a large base.
“The lava doesn't seem to be headed toward the city of Goma. We remain on alert,” it said.
While Goma is home to many U.N. peacekeepers and aid workers, much of the surrounding eastern Congo is also under threat from a myriad of armed groups vying for control of the region's mineral resources.