GOMA, Congo — Trucks loaded with relief aid flowed into Goma on Tuesday, and tens of thousands of Congolese left homeless or destitute by a volcanic eruption last week lined up for food and water in the middle of their devastated city.
More than 90 percent of the 300,000 people who fled the lava flowing from Mount Nyiragongo, 12 miles north of Goma, have already returned home. Thousands more waited in neighboring Gisenyi, Rwanda, for boats to take them across Lake Kivu to other Congolese cities.
Jacques Durieux, a vulcanologist at the French Group for the Study of Active Volcanoes, said there were no indications another eruption of the volcano was imminent, and no more lava was flowing. He said it was now safe for the United Nations to deliver aid directly to Goma and for the refugees to return home.
"The active phase of the volcanic eruption is finished," said Durieux, who was contracted by the United Nations to assess the situation. He said continuing earth tremors caused by the settling of the area following the Jan. 17 eruption were the only remaining threat. He said most of the buildings in Congo were simple structures, and therefore resistant to earthquakes.
Laura Melo, spokeswoman for the U.N. World Food Program, said the agency would begin distributing food Tuesday outside Goma and planned to deliver food to Goma itself no later than Wednesday.
Fresh water was trucked into Goma on Tuesday, and water distribution points were being set up throughout the town where pipes were cut, said Michael Despines, head of the International Rescue Committee in Goma.
Electricity has been restored to much of Goma, and one of the water treatment plants was now operating.
In New York, Stephen Johnson of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the United Nations is expected to appeal $15 million in immediate assistance, including food and other items for victims.
South Africa said Tuesday it was contributing 100 tons of food, medicine and other relief supplies to be delivered to Congo over the weekend.
The Kinshasa-based head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo, dubbed MONUC, Amos Namanga Ngongi was expected in Goma Tuesday to assess the situation in what had been the mission's headquarters in rebel-held eastern Congo.
Lava flows across the airport have made it unuseable as a logistics base for supporting the U.N. observers monitoring the cease-fire in Congo's 3 1/2-year civil war. MONUC's Goma headquarters was looted just after its staff evacuated to Rwanda when the volcano erupted Thursday.
In Kinshasa, Congo's security minister, Mwenze Kongolo, accused rebel authorities in Goma of "irresponsibility," saying they were too slow to evacuate residents. He also criticized the rebels for refusing to allow a government delegation to deliver relief supplies.
The government has allocated the equivalent of $1.4 million to aid volcano victims, and negotiations were underway with rebel and U.N. authorities about getting the supplies to Goma, he said.
Residents struggled Monday to recover from the devastating volcanic eruption that destroyed their city, scavenging for building materials and for ways to make money. But that effort turned lethal when more than 30 people died while trying to siphon fuel from a burned-out gas station.
The Congolese were trying to scoop up gasoline and diesel fuel when fumes from hot lava apparently set it on fire. Chiza Barabara, who lives near the gas station, said 50 people were killed. Others put the figure at 30.
There have been unconfirmed reports that as many as 40 people died in Thursday's eruption, but Congolese and U.N. officials admit that no one has any firm information about casualties.
The 11,381-foot Nyiragongo and 10,022-foot Nyamulagira volcanoes north of Goma are the only two active ones in the eight-volcano Virunga chain. Nyiragongo last erupted seriously in January 1977.