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Central African Republic Rebels Negotiate Child Soldier Demobilization


In Central African Republic, one of the main rebel groups is negotiating to disarm hundreds of its child soldiers. This comes one month after it signed a peace deal with the government to put down its weapons and join the national army. The lead United Nations negotiator on the child-soldier deal hopes this is the first step toward reconciliation between the warring sides. But analysts say this may be just a rebel tactic to get more power. Phuong Tran has more from VOA's West and Central Africa Bureau in Dakar.

After last week's negotiations with the rebel group L'Union des Forces Démocratiques pour le Rassemblement - UFDR - U.N. negotiator Jean-Claude Legrand, received a verbal agreement from the rebel chief to release 400 child soldiers.

Legrand, a U.N. regional advisor for child protection, says UFDR's agreement shows the rebels are ready to obey laws.

"They realize that if they want to get out of the bush, if they want to get into regular politics in the country, they have to comply with international standards," said Legrand.

Hundreds of thousands of Central Africans in the north have fled violence and burning homes during years of clashes between the rebels, who are seeking more power in the government and the military.

Government officials have asked for U.N. peacekeepers to be stationed where the borders of Chad, Sudan and Central African Republic meet.

Analyst Richard Reeve, with London-based Chatham House, says UFDR seems to be cooperating on the issue of child soldiers because it hopes this good behavior will keep away international peacekeepers.

"It would have severely hampered their ability to retake territory and achieve their military goals," said Reeve. "And secondly, it would have allowed the U.N. to investigate a bit more about where the UFDR is based, where it comes from and who is supporting it."

The Central African government has accused the Sudanese government of funding Central African rebel movements, including UFDR. The Sudanese government denies the accusation.

Regardless of the rebels' motives, U.N. negotiator Legrand wants to act quickly.

"We are not sure if this opportunity will last very long," said Legrand. "This is why we are moving as fast as we can to release the children. This is the start of the rainy season in Central Africa, so this area is already extremely difficult to reach."

The U.N. Children's Fund is waiting for the rebels to gather all the names of its child soldiers, who live in dozens of small, often remote communities, so the U.N. agency can start meeting with them.

Legrand says the next step is to reopen schools and start non-military activities for the children.

He says possibly thousands of children voluntarily join the army here because there is little else for them to do.

The U.N. negotiator expects all the names by next week, followed by an official agreement signing with UFDR at the beginning of June.

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