Clinton demands end to sexual violence in Congo

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US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was today demanding an end to rampant sexual violence that has engulfed war-ravaged eastern Congo.

Clinton was carrying that message to government officials and UN peacekeepers in the eastern city of Goma, which has become the epicenter of an epidemic of gang rapes and other sexual crimes amid continuing fighting between the army and rebel groups.

The United Nations has recorded at least 200,000 cases of sexual violence against women and girls in the region since conflict erupted in 1996, something Clinton deplored as "one of mankind's greatest atrocities" before she arrived.

The figures, Clinton told a group university students in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa yesterday, are "astonishing and horrible." She urged the youth of Congo to mount nationwide protests against such abuses and said she would push the government hard on the issue.

"The entire society needs to be speaking out against this," she said. "It should be a mark of shame anywhere, in any country. I hope that that will become a real cause here in Kinshasa that will sweep across the country."

Clinton came to Goma aboard a UN plane over the objections of some top aides who were concerned about security and logistics for the visit. She is the first US secretary of state to visit the city, according to the State Department historian's office.

Although fighting has eased since a 2003 peace deal, the army and rebel groups, fighting over eastern Congo's vast mineral wealth, are still attacking villages, killing civilians and committing brutal atrocities.

In Goma, Clinton was meeting with Congolese President Joseph Kabila in a tent at a compound on the shore of Lake Kivu. She also plans to meet with victims of the sexual violence and officers in the UN peacekeeping force that is deployed in the Congo.

Members of Kabila's armed forces are accused of taking part in the brutality, including gang rapes that have led to unwanted pregnancies, serious injuries and death to tens of thousands of women and girls.

"We have to speak out against the impunity of those in positions of authority who either commit these crimes or condone it," Clinton said.

Earlier this month, a leading human rights group demanded that Congo crack down on sexual violence often perpetrated by military generals and other top officers. It cited UN data showing that 7,703 cases of sexual violence by soldiers were reported last year.

Human Rights Watch said the Congolese authorities have failed to prevent the attacks and called on the U.N. Security Council to take tough steps, including travel bans, against individuals or governments that commit or condone sexual violence in Congo and elsewhere.

Clinton said the United States would support UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in his call last week for global action to stop government forces and armed groups from using sexual violence as a tool of warfare.

Clinton's Congo stop is the latest in an 11-day journey through Africa to promote development and good governance and underscore the Obama administration's commitment to the world's poorest continent.

She arrived in Congo after stops in Angola, South Africa and Kenya. She will also visit Nigeria, Liberia and Cape Verde.