Hundreds of under-age boys and girls are being forcibly recruited by rival armed groups in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and sent to the front lines of the escalating conflict in North Kivu province in the far east of the country, the UN mission reported today.
The mission, known as MONUC, has identified the Congrès National pour la Défense du Peuple (CNDP), the group led by the renegade General Laurent Nkunda, and the Front Démocratique de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR) as the two main groups responsible for the forced recruitment of children into armed conflict.
The groups deliberately canvass sites such as schools, camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) and other venues to recruit children, leading to the closure of several schools and the noticeable absence of young children among many communities in the volatile province. Families which try to resist the recruitment often face retaliation.
Many of the estimated 8,500 former child soldiers who have been rescued by the UN and other humanitarian organizations since 2004 have been re-recruited in the last few months or used as sex slaves, according to the mission.
MONUC pledged in a press statement released today in Kinshasa to redouble its efforts to protect children and prevent their forced recruitment into the armed groups, and it issued a call to those groups to immediately end the practice.
The warning comes amid mounting UN concern about the overall humanitarian situation inside North Kivu, where tens of thousands of people are on the move again after some of the worst fighting since the DRC civil war formally ended in 2003.
An estimated 800,000 Congolese are now internally displaced within North Kivu, including 170,000 who have been forced to flee in only the past four months since fighting escalated between Government forces (known as FARDC), troops loyal to Gen. Nkunda and rebel groups such as the FDLR.
The security situation is so difficult that UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) teams and other relief workers are unable to reach many areas of North Kivu, which borders Rwanda and Uganda. More than 4,500 MONUC troops have been deployed to help ensure the defence of Goma, the capital, and the key town of Saké.
In a related development, UNHCR António Guterres was today in the national capital, Kinshasa, to meet with senior Government officials at the start of a five-day visit to assess the deteriorating situation in North Kivu and nearby areas.