The United Nations refugee agency says thousands of people reportedly are fleeing their homes in Democratic Republic of Congo's South Kivu province. This follows last week's start of a joint Congolese-Rwandan military operation against the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda militia group in North Kivu. 

The U.N. refugee agency calls these latest reports alarming as it indicates the violence, which has been rampant in North Kivu, now is spreading to the relatively stable South.

UNHCR spokesman, Ron Redmond, says the Mai Mai militia, which is based in South Kivu, opposes the joint military operation in North Kivu.  As a consequence, he tells VOA, the Mai Mai have blocked a main road.

"And this has actually cut off a main artery," said Redmond. "In fact it is the only main road in this area and some 5,000 displaced people who live right in that immediate vicinity have fled their homes and many of them are moving toward Uvira, which is one of the main regional centers in South Kivu.  So, it is a concern that it is now spreading from North Kivu into South Kivu."  

The UNHCR has a big office in Uvira and is present in Bukavu, which is the capital of South Kivu.  In recent years, the agency has been receiving and helping Congolese refugees returning from years of exile in Tanzania.

Redmond says the threat of this new conflict in South Kivu also may impede these returns.

"That operation continues as well," he said. "But, we fear that if this standoff between the Mai Mai and the Congolese continues that it could also disrupt the returns to the Makobola area, which is a major destination for refugees coming back from Tanzania."  

Redmond says the UNHCR hopes stability will return to South Kivu.  But, he warns the situation is very fragile.  

He notes there are about 20 different armed groups in the region and many of them form different alliances.  In this case, he says the Mai Mai are opposed to the Rwandan army and do not want its intrusion into the country.  

He says this accounts for the standoff with the Congolese army and for the increasing vulnerability of the civilian population.  He says fears are growing of further displacement.