A human rights group is warning that the Democratic Republic of Congo's street children risk being manipulated by political parties during and after elections this year. Human Rights Watch says tens of thousands of children across the country could be used to take part in demonstrations or incite violence, putting them in serious danger from the security services.

Congo's bustling cities are full of street children.  Crippling poverty, high school fees, and accusations of being sorcerers responsible for family problems have all contributed to their numbers doubling during the last decade.

As the vast central African country prepares for elections, which are meant to mark an end to two wars and offer a chance for reconstruction, Human Rights Watch warns tens of thousands of children could be manipulated in the process.

Poor and homeless, the children risk being recruited by political parties to create chaos, intimidate voters, and challenge the results of the upcoming elections, the New York-based group said in a report published Tuesday.

On the basis of political violence in 2005, when scores of anti-government demonstrators, including street children, were killed or injured, Human Rights Watch said it is particularly concerned about their safety during the electoral period.

The polls will give millions of Congolese a chance to choose their leaders for the first time in more than 40 years, during which they have endured little but dictatorship, war, and chaos.

Although most of the belligerents from the last war, a 1998-2003 conflict that has killed more than four million people, have officially laid down their weapons and turned to politics, fears of electoral violence are real.

As a preventive measure, the European Union will send hundreds of soldiers to Congo during the election period to back up thousands of U.N. peacekeepers, who are stretched thin keeping a lid on violence that continues in the east.