By Stephanie Hancock
N'DJAMENA, May 9 (Reuters) - Chad pledged on Wednesday to work to demobilise hundreds of child soldiers fighting in the ranks of the government army and rebel groups across the conflict-torn central African country.
President Idriss Deby's government made the commitment in an agreement signed with the United Nations children's agency UNICEF. It had previously denied allegations it was using children to fight rebels opposed to Deby.
But at a "Free Children from War" conference organised by UNICEF in France in February, African governments including Chad said they would try to rid their countries of underage fighters.
A recent investigation by UNICEF found 300 children, many as young as 8 and 11, serving in government military forces in the central Chadian town of Mongo alone.
Relief workers saw this as just the "tip of the iceberg" in a country which has experienced waves of violence in recent months, the result both of domestic rebellion and of spillover from the war in neighbouring Sudan's Darfur region.
"There are clearly a considerable number of children" under arms in Chad, said Steve Adkisson, head of UNICEF in Chad.
He said the organisation would work with the Chadian authorities to try to conduct a census across the landlocked country of children fighting, not only on the government side but also for Chadian and Sudanese rebel groups.
Adkisson said the demobilisation process would be complicated: "This isn't simply a question of identifying individual children and liberating them from the armed forces.
"It will require a continual effort to provide them with an opportunity to re-enter the communities from which they came, and re-establish their lives," he said.
FORGED BIRTH CERTIFICATES
Chad's secretary of state for foreign affairs, Djidda Moussa Outman, said the government had already started demobilising the child soldiers at Mongo as a "a strong sign of Chad's goodwill".
But he insisted the government had never knowingly signed up children into the Chadian army.
"It's young people who forge their birth certificates. If they come to sign up we cannot know they are lying. But we are now taking concrete actions to remove them quickly from the national army," he said.
Only a few months ago, government ministers were categorically denying there were any child soldiers in the army's ranks and some even accused UNICEF of trying to damage Chad's image with reports of the young combatants.
In November, a Chadian journalist was detained by military police and accused of insulting the honour of the armed forces after he wrote an article saying teenagers were being recruited to fight rebels opposed to Deby's rule.
Several rebel groups are staging a hit-and-run guerrilla war in their campaign to topple Deby, who himself seized power in a 1990 revolt from the east. He was re-elected in polls a year ago which were boycotted as fraudulent by main opposition parties.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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