KINSHASA, Dec 24 (Reuters) - Fighting in eastern Congo this month has led to a surge in child abductions by armed groups who force minors to fight, carry ammunition or become their sex slaves, Save the Children said on Monday.
Children's rights campaigners, including the British-based charity, say most of the factions fighting in eastern Congo's complex web of conflict left behind after the vast country's 1998-2003 war have used child soldiers.
Save the Children says it has demobilized nearly 7,000 children over the past three years, but some of them are being forced back into armed groups by a wave of recruitment since a government advance and rebel counter-offensive this month.
"The situation for children in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is catastrophic. Fighters from all sides are using children as frontline fodder, raping young girls and attacking houses," Country Director Hussein Mursal said in a statement.
Some children were kept captive in small holes in the ground as punishment or after being captured by enemy groups, it said.
Mursal told Reuters his organization had received more than 100 children in the last two weeks who had run away from armed groups, but could not estimate the total numbers involved.
"It's very difficult to know. What we see is the tip of the iceberg," he said.
Children previously rescued from armed groups are at greater risk because commanders seek out battle-hardened youths, as many of them fail to reintegrate into family and community life due to lack of resources for care and schooling, Mursal said.
This month's violence in North Kivu province was mainly between the army and dissident Tutsi General Laurent Nkunda.
But a host of other armed groups, including traditional Mai Mai militia and Rwandan Hutu rebels accused of leading their country's 1994 genocide, also roam Congo's eastern provinces.
'GOD WAS WITH US CHILDREN'
Alpha Karupala said when he was 11 or 12 he started fighting, first for the Mai Mai and then for government forces. He thinks he is now 17, but cannot be sure.
"We fought and received nothing, we were hungry. To save ourselves we stole and used weapons to rob civilians. Even though maybe we were scared sometimes, we knew God was with us children," he said on Monday by phone from eastern Congo.
"When we were fighting our chiefs would tell us to go to a certain place and any person we met there, to kill them, even if he is a civilian. That is the war we are in," he said.
But Theophile Hakizimana Museveni, a Goma-based spokesman for the "Pareco" Mai Mai group, denied using child soldiers.
"We do not use any children. The fighters have to be adults. It is adult men who know what a nation means, but a child, does he really know what he is doing? We know what we are doing."
Officials from the army and Nkunda's camp were unavailable.
President Joseph Kabila's government has called a peace conference for Thursday in North Kivu's provincial capital Goma, but after a string of failed peace initiatives optimism is in short supply, and Nkunda has yet to say whether he will attend.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Monday welcomed the "timely initiative," which he said could make "important steps towards ending the suffering of the population." In a statement, he urged "all concerned to seize this opportunity."
The fighting has forced tens of thousands of civilians from their homes, adding to an estimated 800,000 displaced people -- around half of them forced to move by this year's fighting alone. (Additional reporting by Patrick Worsnip at the United Nations; writing by Alistair Thomson in Dakar)
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