Hundreds of thousands of people have fled inter-ethnic violence in northeastern areas of the Democratic Republic of Congo in the past two weeks, local authorities and the UN said Tuesday.
The UN refugee agency voiced deep concern over a flare-up in violence in DRC's volatile Ituri Province, which it said had seen "multiple attacks" involving the Hema and Lendu groups since early June.
Agency spokesman Babar Baloch told journalists in Geneva the violence had forced more than 300,000 to flee their homes, voicing fears "this escalation could engulf large parts of the province".
Ituri governor Jean Bamanisa Saidi said the number of displaced could be as high as 400,000.
"We are overwhelmed with this surge in displacement," Saidi told AFP, stressing the urgent need to ensure the safety of the displaced and "stop the violence".
Local officials last week said at least 50 people had been killed in a matter of days in Ituri, while other sources put the death toll from the inter-ethnic violence at over 70.
The cause of the latest flare-up was not immediately clear, but it occurred in a region where tens of thousands died in clashes between the Hema and Lendu ethnic groups between 1999 and 2003.
Baloch pointed out that attacks between the two communities had also displaced some 350,000 in late 2017 and early 2018, "but the situation had calmed".
He said that "large-scale displacement" had been reported in three of Ituri's five administrative territories, with people fleeing unrest in Djugu territory especially.
Baloch cited reports that both communities were "forming self-defence groups and being involved in revenge killings.
"UNHCR fears this escalation could engulf large parts of the province," he added.
"We are gravely concerned for the safety of civilians after receiving reports of killings, kidnappings, maiming and sexual violence being unleashed against people."
The UN displacement estimate was based on reports from local sources in 125 locations, since humanitarian groups do not currently have access to most of the violence-hit areas.
According to the UN, most of those displaced had sought shelter within host communities, but some 30,000 had arrived at existing displacement sites, "where conditions were already dire".
The UNHCR and its partners are working with the authorities to better understand needs on the ground, said Baloch. But it was clear many of the displaced urgently required shelter, basic household items and food.
"People are now sleeping in the open or in public buildings," he said. Around 10,000 people were camped out in or near the church in Drodro in Djugu territory, without any assistance, he added.
Another 20,000 people had reached Ituri's provincial capital Bunia, and efforts were underway to find suitable sites to host them around the city, he added.
"Many more people are trying to get to the relative safety of sites near Bunia but are reportedly blocked by armed youth from both ethnic groups," he said, adding that others were trying to cross Lake Albert over to Uganda. Bunia is the main city in Ituri.
Ituri is not the only part of DRC wracked by unrest.
The country counts an estimated 4.5 million internally displaced people.
Ituri and North Kivu province, just to the south, are also trying to roll back a major epidemic of Ebola that has claimed more than 1,400 lives since last August. Both provinces sit on DR Congo's eastern border with Uganda.