The UN refugee agency reports thousands of Congolese refugees have fled to Uganda and Rwanda in the past few days seeking safety from escalating fighting in  North Kivu province.  Rebel forces loyal to renegade leader Laurent Nkundu have made serious inroads into territory previously held by the Congolese army of President Joseph Kabila around the eastern town of Goma.  Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from UNHCR headquarters in Geneva.

The UN refugee agency reports more than 8,500 Congolese refugees have crossed the border into Uganda since the latest round of fighting started in August - some 2,500 of them over the past few days.  

UN refugee spokesman, Ron Redmond, says many of the refugees said they had walked for more than 20 hours from the Rugarama area in Congo.  This is about 17 kilometers from the Uganda border.

He says most of the Congolese refugees in Uganda are dispersed in a dozen villages along the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

"They are accommodated by host families, friends and relatives," said Redmond. "They are in fairly good condition.  But, we fear that the situation could soon deteriorate if medical, water and sanitation facilities are unable to cope with rapidly increasing needs.  Logistics are difficult.  It is a very remote area.  In addition, the food supplies in that part of Uganda generally depend on local imports from DRC."

Meanwhile, Redmond says some 1,200 other Congolese refugees, who fled to Rwanda earlier in the week, were staying in a school in Gisenyi.  He says they did not want to be registered by UNHCR and transported to the transit center.  

He says many of the refugees have since returned to Goma to check on their properties and families left behind.  Many others, he says, have moved in with relatives in Gisenyi or crossed the border to Uganda.

Redmond says the UNHCR is going to have to set up new sites to accommodate the growing number of refugees and displaced people.

"It is clear we are going to require more resources, more funding to cope with the new needs," he said. "Working with the UN system and our partners in the UN as well as NGO partners, we are going to need to rapidly distribute tarpaulins, blankets, sleeping mats, jerry cans, buckets, mosquito nets.  All of the aid items that are absolutely essential in a situation like this where people have fled with nothing."  

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, is renewing his appeal to all sides in the conflict to respect humanitarian principles and to ensure the safety of civilians and those trying to help them.

He says hundreds of thousands of people who have already suffered far too much are in danger and in desperate need of help.

The UNHCR reports more than a quarter of a million people have fled their homes since August.   Altogether, it estimates there are more than one million internally displaced people in North Kivu.