The United Nations refugee agency UNHCR has expressed concern about the situation of 72,000 displaced people in north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. A spokeswoman said on Friday in Geneva that the people had fled fighting between government troops and militias in the past few days and urgently needed help.

At least 170,000 residents have been displaced since fighting resumed in North Kivu province in November, according to the UNHCR. Around 7,000 were reported to have sought shelter in neighboring Uganda last week. The country is already home to more than 1.5 million refugees.

Women and girls are exposed to sexual violence and blackmail by the fighting groups while fleeing. Many children would be separated from their families. The armed clashes flared up again just as those who had been displaced earlier began to return.

Thousands of those who have now fled lack shelter, food and clean water, putting them at risk of disease. The fighting hampered humanitarian aid.

According to UNHCR data, at least 1.9 million people live as displaced people in North Kivu alone. In total, Congo has 5.6 million internally displaced persons, more than any other African country.