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Monday, 21 January, 2002, 21:15 GMT
More cash for Congo hint
Exploding petrol station
Lava ignited a petrol station causing at least 50 deaths
The government has indicated it may be prepared to increase aid to the areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo devastated by Goma's volcanic eruption.

In a House of Commons statement International Development Minister Hilary Benn expressed sympathy for the plight of those affected by the eruption.

Hours are important - the sooner it gets to them, the less likelihood of lives being lost

Rob Wilkinson
The minister delivered his statement as UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was arriving in the trouble hit country on a long-arranged visit.

The UK government has promised 2m in emergency aid to the region, which continues to be shaken by earth tremors.

Mr Benn said there were reports of about 100 fatalities, before warning that the death toll might rise.

Mr Straw's visit to central Africa alongside his French counterpart Hubert Vedrine will focus primarily on encouraging an end to DRC's civil war.

The foreign secretary says they will also look at what aid is needed to cope with the eruption, which has destroyed the homes of hundreds of thousands of people.

Mr Straw will meet Congolese President Joseph Kabila in Kinshasa, which is about 2,000 miles from the eruption zone, before travelling on to Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda on the three-day joint trip.

Fears continue

UN officials have been urging people not to return to the city of Goma because of fears the area remains unsafe.

The devastation came when Mount Nyriagongo began erupting on Thursday for the first time since 1977.

Jack Straw
Straw will hold talks on what aid is needed
Aid agency Oxfam flew its first aid from the UK into DRC's neighbour, Rwanda, on Sunday and the aid is now being taken to the border refugee camps.

About 220,000 people are thought to have crossed the border into Rwanda since the disaster struck but 180,000 of them have returned after finding only makeshift refugee camps offering little food or shelter.

Oxfam's first 150,000 aid flight included bedding and enough equipment to provide clean water for 50,000 people.

Oxfam worker Rob Wilkinson said: "People crossing back into Goma will make it more complicated to distribute aid, but there are still thousands in the camps who desperately need this equipment.

"Hours are important - the sooner it gets to them, the less likelihood of lives being lost."

Desperation moves

Mr Wilkinson warned of the dangers of people trying to cross the lava flows, which although hard on top could crack when stepped upon, causing horrific injuries or even death.

"But people are desperate to get back to their homes and see if anything survived. There has been a lot of looting and they want to save their belongings."

UK health charity Merlin reports 6,000 residents are returning to the stricken city every hour.

The charity is due to open a centre in Goma's centre on Monday as its nurses continue to treat those suffering the effects of smoke inhalation, burns and other injuries.

There are also cholera outbreaks on Congo's borders, with concerns that water supplies may have been affected.

The issue of people returning to the affected area was raised in the House of Commons by Conservative international development spokesman Caroline Spelman.

She said: "If refugees are now returning to Goma ... is the aid going to be in the right place at the right time."

Mr Benn replied that the "overwhelming priority" was to make sure that relief reached people in the places they now found themselves.

Conflict resolution

The joint Anglo-French visit to central Africa follows historic differences between the two countries over the continent, both in the scramble for African territory and more recently in Rwanda.

Mr Straw and Mr Vedrine will hope to lay those aside to tackle the current conflict.

This began in 1998 when the Rwandan civil war between Hutus and Tutsis in the mid 1990s spilled over into neighbouring Congo as Hutu militias fled to DRC.

Speaking ahead of his trip, Mr Straw said: "Central Africa is the scene of the biggest war in the world. This conflict has been ignored for too long.

"The region stands at a key moment. The fighting may have stopped but peace has not yet broken out.

"Hubert Vedrine and I will be urging the leaders of the region to seize this opportunity for peace."

The trip follows Tony Blair's declared determination at last year's Labour Party conference to tackle the state of Africa.

The BBC's Bridget Kendall
"The Foreign Ministers came here with a longer-term aim in mind"

Congo volcano
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See also:

21 Jan 02 | Africa
UN warns against return to Goma
20 Jan 02 | Africa
In pictures: Eruption aftermath
15 Mar 00 | Europe
Living with a volcano
19 Feb 99 | Sci/Tech
Volcano teaches deadly lessons
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