GENEVA — Hundreds of thousands of people have fled an explosion of ethnic violence in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo in the past two weeks, the United Nations said on Tuesday, creating a new humanitarian emergency in a region where international agencies are struggling to control an outbreak of ebola.
The United Nations refugee agency said more than 300,000 people had fled in the face of large-scale clashes between two ethnic groups, the Hema and the Lendu, in Ituri province, which borders Uganda and South Sudan. But officials said that estimate was conservative.
“The figure could be way, way higher,” Babar Baloch, a spokesman for the refugee agency, said, adding that the violence was preventing aid agencies from gaining access to the area.
The situation had deteriorated in the past week with multiple attacks and counterattacks between the groups, and reports of killings, maiming, sexual violence and kidnapping, Mr. Baloch said.
In a region that is no stranger to violent conflict, including clashes between the same two groups at the end of 2017, the rate at which people had been forced to flee appeared unprecedented, he added.
Congolese armed forces were carrying out operations to try to contain violence that had already engulfed three of Ituri province’s five districts, Mr. Baloch said. Communities were reportedly forming self-defense groups and engaging in revenge killings, he added, and the agency fears the violence could spread.
The Democratic Republic of Congo already has more than 4.5 million people displaced by conflict, but the crisis in Ituri has added a new dimension to multiple challenges confronting relief agencies in the country’s northeast.
Small numbers of Ituri residents have fled into Uganda, raising concerns that escalating conflict could lead to a larger flow of refugees across the border. The refugee agency also started a program of emergency relief at the end of May for 100,000 people forced to flee their homes in an area just south of Ituri, in North Kivu province.
The mass displacement poses a threat to efforts to tackle an Ebola outbreak in Congo that is the second-worst recorded wave of cases, surpassed in scale only by the 2013-2016 epidemic in West Africa. Since it began in August 2018, the outbreak is believed to have infected 2,168 people and killed 1,449 of them as of Monday, the World Health Organization reported.
Though the outbreak is centered in North Kivu, government data shows that around 10 percent of the infections and deaths have occurred in Ituri, and last week it spread into Uganda.
International efforts to combat the outbreak have been unable to bring it under control in the face of community resistance and militia attacks that disrupted critical operations to isolate those infected and trace all those in contact with them.
The mobility of the population in North Kivu and Ituri has been a persistent risk factor in the outbreak, Tarik Jasarevic, a spokesman for the W.H.O., told reporters in Geneva.
“Every time you have people moving in high numbers, it is more complicated to do the work of follow-up,” Mr. Jasarevic said.