Rebel fighters who continue to reject Congo's peace process are recruiting and re-arming children in the lawless east, human rights watchdog Amnesty International said Friday. Some of the children are as young as 12 while many taking up weapons are being forced to do so, the group said.
Children have long been associated with Congo's wars. Laurent Kabila came to power in 1997, marching across the vast country with his Kadogos, a Swahili term for the young fighters.
The U.N. estimates 25,000 children served in the last war, which rebels launched to oust the late President Kabila and only officially ended in 2003.
Efforts to remove children from forces in the fighting that simmers in Congo's mineral-rich east appear to be stumbling as Amnesty International confirmed Friday that rebels were recruiting many more children.
The group said former Rwandan-backed rebels are abducting the children, some of whom have only just demobilized from the various armed groups they fought in during the war and, in many cases, forcing them to take up arms again.
Amnesty said in a statement that children as young as 12 are being armed while the fear of being seized and forced to fight meant many others were fleeing their homes in North Kivu province.
Congo is preparing for elections, which are due to be held in June and are meant to draw a line under years of chaos and war.
But the conflict continues in the east, where rebel groups have rejected the peace process and the new national army has failed to establish its authority, despite the help of thousands of U.N. peacekeepers.
Amnesty warned that Mai Mai militias who were armed by the government to fight against the Rwandan-backed rebels have also begun recruiting children in an apparent escalation of tension.
The cost of Congo's last war has been devastating, with over 1,000 people continuing to die from war-related hunger and disease, on top of the four million that have been killed since 1998.