GORDIL, Central African Republic, June 16 (Reuters) - More than 200 child soldiers swapped guns for schoolbooks in Central African Republic on Saturday after being released by rebels.
The Union of Democratic Forces for Unity (UFDR) had used the children in a low-intensity war against President Francois Bozize's forces, backed by French troops, in the remote northeast until they signed a peace deal in April.
The movement's founder, General Damane Zakaria, handed over the underage fighters -- some in military fatigues, others in civilian clothes -- at a ceremony following a deal with the government and the United Nations.
"We are no longer going to use weapons, we are going to use pens to return to school," said Mahamoud Ataib, 16, designated by the children as their spokesman.
Officials from U.N. children's agency UNICEF handed out schoolbooks and pens at the ceremony in Gordil, a former rebel stronghold almost 700 km (435 miles) from the capital Bangui, sandwiched between two huge wetland reserves.
The landlocked country, languishing near the bottom of just about every development ranking, has suffered decades of instability and military coups, exacerbated recently by the spill-over of conflicts from neighbouring Sudan and Chad.
Central African Republic did not sign the Paris Principles in February which call upon states to demobilise child soldiers.
But the handover was part of a May agreement between Zakaria, the Central African Republic's government and UNICEF to return the underage fighters to their families.
Relief workers say violence by rebels, government troops and bandits has driven 300,000 civilians from their homes in the north, creating a "forgotten" humanitarian crisis.
A quarter of the country's 4 million population have suffered the effects of civil war or spillover from conflicts in Sudan's Darfur region and Chad, according to UNICEF.
The former French colony hosts 10,000 refugees fleeing a rebellion in eastern Chad and the crisis in Darfur, where more than 200,000 people have been killed in four years of fighting.
The United Nations suspended humanitarian operations in the northwest on Tuesday after a French aid worker was gunned down in her car during a trip to assess sanitary conditions.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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