childsoldiers.jpgThe United Nations Children’s Fund yesterday welcomed the release of nearly 200 child soldiers by a Central African rebel group.

The People’s Army for the Restoration of Democracy (APRD) has released 166 boys and 16 girls aged between 10 and 17 since April, and nearly all those child soldiers have since been reunited with their families, UNICEF said in a statement.

The release of the child soldiers follows the rebels’ signature of a peace agreement last year and a visit to the Central African Republic (CAR) by the Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict.

“We are extremely pleased that APRD leaders are following through with their commitment to surrender the children in their ranks,” said Mahimbo Mdoe, UNICEF’s representative in Bangui, the CAR capital.

The UN agency has been working closely with the government and several non-profits to plan and coordinate the release of the children, who mostly hail from a province in the north of the country. Two transit centres were built and each released child was given a “demobilization kit” that includes clothes, sleeping mats, blankets and personal hygiene items. The former soldiers also receive medical check-ups, basic literacy and mathematics classes and counselling.

When the children return to their former communities they can participate in catch-up classes to facilitate their reintegration into regular schools, while older children can attend training programmes in such areas as animal husbandry, tailoring and carpentry.

But Mr. Mdoe stressed that the former child soldiers are usually returning to communities with limited access to basic services and few employment opportunities. Sporadic fighting continues in northern CAR, particularly near the borders with Chad and Sudan.

“Reintegration is a long and often difficult process in any circumstance, and the prevailing climate of insecurity adds to the challenges,” he said. “We need to keep up our assistance to these communities if we want the demobilization programme to succeed.”

UNICEF is calling for an additional $1 million to ensure that the demobilization and reintegration of the child soldiers can continue.

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