C. Africa armed groups vow to free thousands of child soldiers

CHILDREN AT WAR. Photograph made available 27 June 2007 shows a teenager from Central African Republic at the rebel military base, in Gordil, northeastern Central African Republic, 15 June 2007. Photo by Pierre Holtz / EPA

CHILDREN AT WAR. Photograph made available 27 June 2007 shows a teenager from Central African Republic at the rebel military base, in Gordil, northeastern Central African Republic, 15 June 2007.

Photo by Pierre Holtz / EPA

BANGUI, Central African Republic – Leaders of armed groups in strife-ravaged Central African Republic agreed Tuesday, May 5, to release thousands of child soldiers and to end underage recruitment, UNICEF said.

The United Nations children's agency described the news as a "major step forward" in the country, where it estimates 6,000 to 10,000 children are held by various armed factions.

"The Central African Republic is one of the worst places in the world to be a child, and UNICEF is eager to work with local authorities to help reunite these children with their families," UNICEF representative Mohamed Malick Fall said in a statement.

More than two years of conflict in the landlocked and deeply poor nation has led to "one of the world's worst – and least visible – humanitarian crises," according to the UNICEF statement.

The latest strife in a nation long riven by coups, army mutinies and insurgency took on an unprecedented religious dimension after the latest coup in 2013, pitting mainly Muslim rebels against Christian vigilantes at the expense of the civilian population.

The children involved in the armed groups include those serving as combatants, those used for sexual purposes as well as those working in roles such as cooks and messengers.

The agreement to release them was signed this week during a reconciliation forum in the capital Bangui, backed by UNICEF and its partners with the aim of restoring peace to the country.

Limited funding  

The parties that signed the accord will now agree on a schedule to release the children, although this will place fresh demands on the already limited funding available, UNICEF said.

Last week the UN warned that it had received only a fraction of the funds needed to address the crisis in Central African Republic, calling for it not to be forgotten by the world.

The transitional government is almost entirely dependent on foreign funds as it faces the difficult task of rebuilding a ruined administration in a country where the economy is in tatters.

About half the population of 4.6 million people lives in severe poverty and needs humanitarian aid, according to the UN.

Many regions are affected by lawlessness, with around 50,000 people forced to flee to neighboring countries and another 20,000 displaced inside the country since last December.

Since December 2013, nearly 900,000 people have been displaced. 

The country has also been rocked recently by allegations that French soldiers sent to keep the peace sexually abused hungry children in exchange for food.

France intervened militarily in its former colony in December 2013 after receiving the green light from the United Nations to try to break the spiral of violence in the country.

But revelations last week that an internal UN report was leaked in July last year to French authorities with the allegations have sparked uproar. The UN has denied a cover-up.

The abuse reportedly took place at a center for displaced people near Bangui airport between December 2013 and June 2014.

A 9,000-strong UN peacekeeping force was also deployed in September, taking over from an African Union-led mission.

Last year, UNICEF helped to secure the release of more than 2,800 children from armed groups in the Central African Republic, while 500 were released in 2013. – Rappler.com