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Sudan: UNICEF returns thousands of former child soldiers home

Sudan: UNICEF returns thousands of former child soldiers home

Almost 3,500 children who had acted as soldiers in the Sudan's civil war have returned to their communities and families in the southern part of the country, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said today.

The move home - completed over the last few days - marked the end of a five-month transition period in which the children were cared for by UNICEF and a coalition of aid groups.

All but 70 of the 3,551 child soldiers, who were released by the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) in February and then temporarily moved by the UN from the conflict zone of Bahr el Ghazal, have now been returned to their original home communities. The 70 remaining boys come from inaccessible areas or places of chronic instability. They are being cared for at a camp near Rumbek.

The SPLA had demobilized the children in fulfilment of a pledge it had made to Carol Bellamy, the Executive Director of UNICEF, during her visit to southern Sudan in October 2000.

"Two weeks before world leaders meet in New York for a UN summit on children, this proves once again that the willing cooperation of people of influence can bring an end to the appalling use of children as soldiers," Ms. Bellamy said today. "Let's hope these children and young people get the full fresh start they deserve - and that world leaders are inspired by this example of action for children, even in the midst of conflict."

The majority of the children were flown over a six-day period ending Sunday to airstrips in Bahr el Ghazal aboard transport aircraft operated by the World Food Programme (WFP). There were often hundreds of relatives and community leaders waiting to greet the returning children. A member of the family or a guardian signed a form saying they were accepting responsibility for the child.

According to Ms. Bellamy, the demobilization of the children was "hard-won but decisive." She applauded the support of WFP, aid organizations, donors, and community leaders on the ground who "gave their all to making this effort a success."