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Red Cross: Sexual Violence in DRC's North Kivu Reaches New Heights

The International Committee of the Red Cross says sexual violence against women and girls in the North Kivu province of Democratic Republic of Congo is among the worst it has ever seen. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Red Cross headquarters in Geneva the agency says it plans to significantly increase assistance to the victims to meet accelerating needs.

The International Committee of the Red Cross calls the humanitarian consequences of the fighting in North Kivu province alarming.

Red Cross Deputy Director of Operations Dominik Stillhart visited the region and says the armed violence against the civilian population has reached a scale and intensity that has not been seen since the height of the war in 2000.

He says the fighting has been accompanied by serious violations of international humanitarian law. He says these include rape, forced recruitment, pillaging of civilian property and destruction of infrastructure essential for the population's survival.

"What really shocked me personally most is the systematic violence, especially against women and girls which is producing immense suffering in the Kivu ... I have rarely seen myself a context where this particular phenomenon is so widespread and produces so much suffering with the population," said Stillhart.

Fighting resumed earlier this year between government troops and forces loyal to renegade leader Laurent Nkunda. Since then, more than 370,000 people have been displaced, about 145,000 in the past three months.

Stillhart says much of the ongoing conflict is ethnically based. And this type of conflict, he notes often results in a higher degree of violence against civilians, including rape and other sexual abuse.

"That type of violence is a weapon of war. It is a weapon of terrorizing the population," he said. "It is a weapon of intimidating the population. And, we see not only one group, but all the armed groups, and the problem is that there are so many armed groups with different agendas very often linked to one ethnic group that are operating in this territory. That makes it so difficult for the civilian population that has been suffering tremendously for the past 15 years."

Stillhart says not many populations have been repeatedly victimized by this type of violence for such a long period.

The Red Cross plans to significantly increase its aid to the victims in North Kivu. Stillhart says protection and efforts to prevent sexual violence is the agency's number-one priority.

He says the Red Cross also will provide essential supplies to displaced people and will support medical facilities treating war-wounded people.