232 Child Soldiers Released In Congo

A 2003 file photo of a Congolese Patriotic Union (UPC) child soldier, walking through a market in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Getty Images/AFP/Simon Maina
Aid groups in Congo have secured the release of more than 200 child soldiers from militia fighters who forcibly recruited them in the east of the country, the U.N. children's agency said Saturday.

Humanitarian agencies working in the region to dissuade armed groups from drafting children into their ranks had conducted an intensive campaign to secure the releases, said Pernille Ironside, a UNICEF protection officer based in the city of Goma, near the Rwandan border.

About 29,000 children have been demobilized and separated from armed groups in Congo since 2004. But hundreds of children soldiers - maybe a couple thousand - are still believed to be working with armed groups in the area, Ironside said.

"While UNICEF lauds this positive development, it remains concerned about the hundreds of children who remain in armed groups and forces" in Congo, UNICEF said in a statement. "UNICEF is calling on all armed groups and forces to release these children immediately into the care of child protection agencies."

The 232 children, whose average age is 14, were separated this month in the eastern provinces of North and South Kivu from three different factions of the Mai Mai, a pro-government militia group active throughout the lawless region, Ironside said.

UNICEF, the aid group Save the Children and the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Congo separated 182 of the children earlier this month from Mai Mai fighters in the North Kivu town of Beni who arrived voluntarily at a center set up to integrate militia fighters into the national army.

The aid groups negotiated directly with other militias to release the remaining 50 child soldiers - 20 in Bweremana in North Kivu on Wednesday and 20 others earlier in the week in the South Kivu town of Fizi.

The children are "currently in transitory care facilities and awaiting family reunification," UNICEF said. "Once reunified, they will receive assistance to go back to school, undertake vocational training, or start small income generating activities."

Though Congo's army once used child soldiers, it does not anymore. Ironside said most child fighters recruited in Congo are drafted by militias. Though sometimes engaged in battle, child soldiers are frequently used as porters, cooks and lookouts.

Eastern Congo has been wracked by violence for years, despite the end of a 1998-2002 war and historic elections held last year. Tens of thousands of civilians have fled fighting in recent months, mostly pitting the army against rebel leader Laurent Nkunda in North Kivu province.