Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Child soldiers: Armed groups promise to release up to 1,500 child soldiers

An estimated 1,500 child soldiers could be freed in North Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) if armed groups in the area honour a pledge to let the children go, sources said.

The groups, including Mai Mai militias, CNDP (Congrès national pour la defense du peuple) rebels and Rwandan Hutu combatants of the FDLR (Forces Démocratiques pour la Libération du Rwanda), are believed to be holding at least 1,500 children in their ranks.

Last month, they began releasing some youngsters. "There are now 144 children who have been released from different armed groups," said Jaya Murthy, spokesman for the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) in Goma, capital of North Kivu.

The children, including 11 girls, from the Mai Mai, CNDP and FDLR, were being taken care of while their parents were sought.

Murthy said the CNDP, Patriotes résistants congolais militias (Pareco) and Mai Mai groups had verbally agreed to release all other children in their ranks and a written agreement was expected to be signed soon. If the agreement held, he added, UNICEF and its partners hoped the children could be released in the next three months.

"For those who are Rwandan, MONUC [the UN Mission in DRC] will help to repatriate [them]," he said.

Conflict has continued to disrupt civilian lives in the region. Over the weekend, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator John Holmes expressed shock at the large number of crimes being committed in the conflict.

Holmes, who visited the Heal Africa Hospital in Goma, which treats disabled children, the war wounded and women who suffered sexual violence, said: "We have all agreed more must be done to end this - now is the time to change the culture of impunity, and build the police, prisons and judiciary to deal with this disgraceful situation."

He also visited a UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) centre in Goma handling the repatriation of Rwandan refugees, which has significantly increased over the past month.

"With all the changes in the security situation, there is now a real opportunity to resolve the suffering of the people of Congo," he said. "Refugees could be showing the way, but we must ensure their return is both voluntary and supported properly.

"We also have to work to ensure that the military operation itself does not have dreadful consequences for the civilian population."

Meanwhile, two human rights groups have urged the DRC to enforce the protection of children from violence and abuse.

"The [UN] Committee on the Rights of the Child’s new findings highlight the unbelievable suffering of children in Congo," Julianne Kippenberg, senior researcher in the children’s rights division of Human Rights Watch (HRW), said in a statement.

"The committee makes clear that the blame for child rights abuses in eastern Congo lies not only with militias and rebel groups, but also with the government itself."

HRW and the Coalition of Congolese Non-Governmental Organisations on Child Rights said the government needed to quickly put into practice a recently adopted Child Protection Code and other relevant protection measures.

Disclaimer:This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
Photo: Copyright IRIN
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