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Armed groups free 145 child soldiers in South Sudan

UNICEF says it has negotiated the largest single release of child soldiers in South Sudan since 2015. Once reunited with family they receive three months of food aid and livestock.

Two armed groups in South Sudan released 145 child soldiers, the United Nations children‘s agency (UNICEF) reported on Wednesday.

It was the largest single release of child soldiers since 2015 and was secured by UNICEF and a government disarmament commission.

The children came from the rebel SPLA-In-Opposition, led by former Vice-President Riek Machar, and the Cobra Faction, which signed a peace deal with the government in 2014.

"Our hope is that today's release will be followed by many others," Mahimbo Mdoe, UNICEF head in South Sudan, said in a statement. "Our priority is to get them into school and to provide services to communities so the children are able to see a more promising future."

Clothed, fed and reunited

The freed children were disarmed, given civilian clothes and enrolled into a reintegration program where they receive counseling.

Efforts have also been made to find their families. Once reunited, the children's families receive three months of food aid and livestock.

Children in South Sudan need safety, protection and opportunities, Mdoe said.  

"With the ongoing fighting across the country, UNICEF continues to receive reports about the recruitment of children," he added. "We urge all parties to abide by international law, to end recruitment and to release children who are currently serving in their ranks."

Südsudan Kindersoldaten (picture alliance/AA/UNICEF/S. Rich)

Child soldiers are often forced to join at gun-point.

Oil-rich South Sudan, the world's newest nation, descended into civil war in December 2013 following disputes between President Salva Kiir and Machar, his sacked deputy.

The army, the rebels and allied militias recruited an estimated 16,000 children since the conflict began.

The two groups, largely separated along ethic lines, signed a peace deal in 2015, but heavy fighting broke out again in July after frequent violations of the agreement.

Machar, seeking medical treatment in South Africa, has urged his forces to reorganize for armed resistance to Kiir's government.

Children are often forced to join the groups, joining to save themselves and to protect their communities, rights groups have said.

The conflict in South Sudan has killed tens of thousands and displaced about 2.5 million people.

aw/sms (Reuters, dpa, AFP)

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