By Djaffar Al Katanty
GOMA, Democratic Republic of Congo (Reuters) - The United Nations said on Wednesday it was temporarily relocating around half its humanitarian staff from the eastern Congo city of Goma following a volcanic eruption that sent lava to the edge of town and triggered hundreds of earthquakes.
More than 20,000 people are homeless and 40 still missing in the aftermath of Saturday evening's eruption, which unleashed rivers of lava flowing toward Goma, killing at least 31 people and destroying more than 3,000 homes, the U.N. said.
The lava from Mount Nyiragongo stopped just 300 metres short of Goma airport, the main hub for aid operations in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.
The U.N. will temporarily relocate around 250 non-essential staff and about 1,500 of their dependents to the city of Bukavu, around 50 km (30 miles) south, said Diego Zorrilla, the U.N.'s deputy humanitarian coordinator in Congo.
"If we thought there was going to be an imminent explosion in Goma I wouldn’t be sitting here calmly. We don’t have any data to show there’s a major risk for the city," Zorrilla told Reuters.
"But we are also in a situation where volcanologists are not calling the event off, so 72 hours after the main event we took a decision to, given the uncertainty, take out people who don’t have a good reason to be here."
The United Nations also has thousands of peacekeepers in and around Goma, who will not be relocated.
The ash cloud caused by the eruption has closed down airports in Goma and Bukavu, and is likely to cause respiratory diseases, the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in a statement.
People who fled their homes have lost valuable possessions including motorcycles that were either consumed by the lava flow or looted, OCHA said.
More than 200 small and medium earthquakes have since caused cracks in buildings and streets in Goma, just 15 km (9 miles) from Nyiragongo. No deaths have so far been reported, but the cracks have caused panic among residents.
"Yesterday it was very small, here it is just opposite my house, but today it has widened," said Susanne Bigakura, 65. "It's scary. We fear it can collapse and our children can fall in."
A 1.7 km (1 mile) river of lava that blocked the main road north from Goma is still too hot to be removed, OCHA said, preventing trade and aid deliveries.
However, some work has begun on restoring the road, according to images on the government's Twitter feed.
(Reporting by Djaffar Al Katanty and Hereward Holland; Editing by Giles Elgood)