The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, says it fears intensified fighting in the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo could undermine efforts to demobilize child soldiers, and even lead to increased recruitment.
UNICEF Spokesman Damien Personnaz says all warring parties recruit child soldiers.
"Who are using a lot of child soldiers to take advantage of the ongoing insecurity to also kill and rape and abduct some children and also women? It is very difficult to know who is doing what exactly," said Damien Personnaz. "A lot of violence is happening in the dark, in the night, during the night, and also basically very far away from any U.N. peacekeeping forces mission elements."
Fierce fighting is reported to have erupted at Kanyabanonga in the eastern Congo. This region has been hard hit by a six-year war. UNICEF says it fears the violence could get worse, and that this could increase the risks of children being forced to serve with the various warring factions.
Mr. Personnaz says children are used in combat and as porters. Girls frequently are forced to become sexual slaves to fighters. He says the recruitment of child soldiers has been going on for so many years, that this practice has become a part of life in this region.
"Basically, it is a matter of survival for them [the children]," he said. "Most of the time they do not have a choice. So, all the efforts in trying to demobilize child soldiers - which is a very difficult process, because we have to negotiate with all the parties involved, we have to make sure that their communities will accept them to be re-integrated - all these efforts, we are afraid, will be put to at least a standstill."
Mr. Personnaz says child soldiers often are forced to kill relatives and friends and to commit other crimes in their communities. This, he says, makes these communities reluctant to accept the children back.
UNICEF says it and other U.N. agencies have demobilized about 4,000 child soldiers since 1997. It believes well over 20,000 children continue to serve with eastern Congolese armed groups.