UNICEF demands release of Child Soldiers
FREETOWN, Sierra Leone (PANA) - A UNICEF official in Freetown has said the agency will continue to press for the release of children in combat and their non-recruitment by fighting forces in Sierra Leone's nine-year-old war.
Roisin de Burca, UNICEF children protection officer, told PANA that estimated 5,400 child soldiers were fighting in the Sierra Leonean conflict.
She said the estimate was a "working figure" based on the number of children registered as missing over the years and those presumed to be with the fighting forces.
Burca said majority of the child soldiers were recruited by "coercion or adduction", mainly by the rebel Revolutionary United Front or RUF, which launched the war in Sierra Leone in 1991.
The issue of child soldiers has gained prominence since RUF renewed hostilities early May.
Sierra Leone had experience a lull in fighting since a peace deal was brokered July in Lome, Togo, by West African leaders and the international community.
Last week, the United Nations Mission in Sierra Leone expressed concern about "the continuing use of child soldiers by the various combatant groups."
It noted that children are "prominent in the RUF, although some possibly as young as 10 years old, were fighting in "paramilitary forces under SLA (Sierra Leone Army) command."
The British government, making a recent donation of weapons to the Sierra Leone government, cautioned against their use by child soldiers.
But the Sierra Leone government has reacted to the child soldier issue by saying the practice was "totally against government policy" that makes 18 years the minimum age for bearing arms.
It ordered military commandeers to "immediately withdraw, demobilise and hand over" any combatant below 18 years to a competent institution for rehabilitation, or "face severe disciplinary action."
Burca said that a group of 88 children arrived in Freetown Monday from the rebel strong hold of Makeni.
She added that they were not released by the RUF, but instead chose to leave with their caretakers because of insecurity in the Makeni area.
She said that about 72 others from the Makeni UNICEF interim care centre, which hosted 164 children, were "coerced by rebel commanders to rejoin them."
UNICEF operates other interim care centres for about 764 children in Bo, Kenema and Freetown.
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