GENEVA - The U.N. Children’s Fund reports leaders of armed groups in the Central African Republic have agreed to release all child soldiers under their control and to end future recruitment.
UNICEF said the agreement is one positive result to come out of an expected weeklong national reconciliation forum that opened Monday in the capital Bangui.
The forum – which brings together members of the government, parliament, political parties, and leaders of various communities and militias – aims to restore peace. The Central African Republic has been at war for more than two years.
It is in this setting that leaders of the country’s armed factions signed an agreement to let the children go. UNICEF estimates the groups are holding 6,000 to 10,000 children.
Not all of the children have been serving as combatants, according to UNICEF. Some have been used for sexual purposes, or in roles such as cooks and messengers.
UNICEF spokesman Christof Boulierac said many of these children likely will have a tough time readjusting to civilian life and reintegrating into their communities.
"It is a very difficult process to ensure the transition of a child who had a Kalashnikov to a normal life," Boulierac said. "We are working a lot, also, with communities, with social leaders to make sure that these children also do not face stigma. That is a paramount important point: acceptance by the community where we want them to be back. Their families want them to be back."
UNICEF said a schedule for the children’s release and reunification with families and communities has yet to be worked out.
In the meantime, it said the leaders of the armed groups agree UNICEF and its partners will have immediate and unrestricted access to the areas under their control. This will allow the humanitarian agencies to identify the children, verify their numbers and plan for their release.
Violence in the Central African Republic has created one of the world’s worst and almost forgotten humanitarian crises. Nearly 900,000 people have been forcibly displaced, with more than half taking refuge in neighboring countries. Children are among the principal victims of this war.
Last year, UNICEF reported it obtained the release of more than 2,800 children, including 646 girls, from armed groups in the C.A.R. That compares to 500 child soldiers freed in 2013.