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Nepalese Child Soldiers Released

In Nepal, a group of former child soldiers, living in detention in United Nations-supervised camps since a peace deal ended a Maoist insurgency, has been released. The children are the first of nearly 4,000 young boys and girls affiliated with former Maoist rebels who are to be rehabilitated into civilian life over the coming weeks.

After bidding farewell to their friends at a ceremony on Thursday, more than 200 young boys and girls left a U.N. camp at Dudhauli, in central Nepal, with $130 in their pocket and a set of civilian clothes.

They were recruited by former Maoist rebels as fighters, cooks, porters or support staff during the decade that a civil war raged in the country.

After the end of the civil war, in 2006, the Maoists entered the political mainstream. These young recruits, along with other rebel fighters, were confined to U.N. camps. Their release was a key part of the peace deal, but comes almost three years after it was signed.

U.N. officials calls the children's release a hugely symbolic moment both for a country emerging from a civilian conflict and for the young people, who are leaving behind their military life.

U.N. Children's Fund spokeswoman Sarah Crowe says the young boys and girls now have a choice to go to school, take up vocational training or start businesses.

"For the first time, in some cases in many years, it means that these young people who have had their lives paralyzed and kept on hold can now enter civilian life. This is kind of the beginning of the peace dividend being paid off as it were," she said.

However, many of the young people, who were recruited in their early teens, are ambivalent about their release and have expressed concerns about coping with a new life they know little about.

Crowe says rehabilitation may not be easy for many of them, but the United Nations will support them in their efforts.

"We understand there are some concerns among those who are being discharged today," she said. "They have lived a very artificial existence in many ways. Some of them won't be easily accepted by their communities. They have been associated with Maoist fighters. So that will be initially quite difficult. They will need trauma counseling. They will be need to be monitored."

The rest of the 4,000 young rebel recruits will be released, in stages, by end of February.

However the fate of thousands of other rebel fighters, also living in U.N. camps, remains uncertain. The army chief has refused to integrate them into the military, as agreed to in the peace deal, setting off a political conflict with the former Maoists, who have quit the government and launched countrywide protests.