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UN hails release by rebels of over 400 child soldiers in Sierra Leone

UN hails release by rebels of over 400 child soldiers in Sierra Leone

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the UN Mission in Sierra Leone (UNAMSIL) welcomed today the release by the rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) of some 400 child combatants and children associated with the fighting forces.

UNAMSIL described the release as "a major step by the RUF in its compliance with the Lomé, Abuja and Freetown agreements signed by the parties to the Sierra Leone conflict." The Mission hailed the move as "a goodwill gesture" and said it expected more children to be freed as the peace process moved forward.

In a statement issued in Freetown and New York, UNICEF said the RUF's release of the child combatants and abductees in Makeni marked a "significant demonstration" of commitment to the peace process. UNICEF also took the occasion to urge all factions in the civil conflict to cease using child soldiers.

"We are greatly encouraged by the initiative taken by the RUF to demobilize children associated with their fighting force," said JoAnna Van Gerpen, UNICEF's representative in Sierra Leone. "Our only regret is that the release of girls has been minimal," she added.

According to UNICEF, of the 424 children released, only 3 were girls. "As the RUF continues to identify children within its ranks for demobilization, I hope they will ensure that girl combatants and abductees are also released to return to their families, to go to school and to resume a normal life," Ms. Van Gerpen said.

Some 355 of the freed children were combatants, while the remainder had been separated from their families due to abduction, displacement and other effects of the civil war. The newly released children join 167 -- including 7 girls -- freed earlier this month by the RUF.

The children will be registered in the national disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programme before being handed over to a UNICEF-supported network of child protection agencies that will care for them while their families are traced.

Once the families are traced, Ms. Van Gerpen said, UNICEF will follow through by helping to reintegrate the children into the community. "Their desire to learn and to have a normal life -- to be a child again -- is very moving," she added.