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Hundreds of child soldiers freed in South Sudan, says UNICEF

The U.N. Children’s Fund reports one of South Sudan’s armed groups, the Cobra Faction, released up to 250 child soldiers on Sunday. The group of children released in the remote village of Lekuangole, in Jonglei state, included four girls — one as young as 9.

This is the third release of child soldiers by this group. It is part of a larger demobilization effort to free some 3,000 child soldiers held by the Cobra Faction. In late January and early February, 660 children were set free in the Jonglei villages of Pibor and Gumrok.

The U.N. Children’s Fund reported it expected another 400 child soldiers would be released over the next two days. The agency said some of the child soldiers have been fighting for up to four years and many have never attended school.

UNICEF representative in South Sudan Jonathan Veitch said the morale of the children released remained good despite the tough situation on the ground. He said the agency was providing them with food, shelter, clothing and basic health care.

Veitch said they were also receiving psychological counseling to help them come to terms with the trauma they have endured.

“UNICEF stands ready to provide the necessary support for children to be reintegrated when they are released. … We are tracing the families of these children so that they can be assisted to return to their communities. We believe most will be able to find their way back to their communities,” Veitch said.

“But, the most critical phase in the reintegration has yet to begin. Education and skills training programs need to be set up long term to help with the integration of the children,”he said.

Veitch said 200 children who previously were freed have been reunited or were about to be reunited with their families.

The release of the child soldiers follows a peace deal between the Cobra Faction and the South Sudanese government.

While he welcomed freedom for these children, Veitch said he was deeply disturbed by the hundreds of children being abducted in Upper Nile and Unity states. He said boys were being targeted and rounded up by both government and opposition forces and many were being sent to the frontline to fight.

In the past year alone, he noted, more than 12,000 children, mostly boys, have been recruited and used as soldiers by all warring parties in South Sudan.

“For the child, this appalling violation of their rights causes immediate and long-term damage-physical and psychological. It also deeply affects families and their communities when children are used in hostilities,” Veitch said.

“I remind the government and the opposition that both sides, both leaders have signed commitments to end the use of children in armed forces and armed groups,” he added.

Veitch condemned the conscription of children for fighting and warned the warring factions that a March 3 Security Council Resolution specifically listed the recruitment of children as soldiers as one of the criteria for imposing sanctions.

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Ihesiulo Grace

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