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Militias in CAR pledge to free thousands of child soldiers

Major armed fractions in the Central African Republic have agreed to release their child soldiers, UNICEF has said. The deal was signed at a summit aimed at restoring peace in the divided country.

The agreement covers an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 children, United Nations children's agency UNICEF announced Tuesday.

The eight main militia groups agreed to free their child soldiers and stop recruiting new ones, as well as release other children that may be used as cooks, messengers, or for sexual purposes, according to the UN organization.

"This is a major step forward for the protection of children in this country," said Mohamed Malick Fall, the UNICEF envoy to Central African Republic (CAR).

"The Central African Republic is one of the worst places in the world to be a child and UNICEF is eager to work with local authorities to help reunite these children with their families."

The parties would now create a schedule for the children's return to their families, and agree on measures to provide protection and support for them to rebuild their lives, UNICEF said.

Country heading towards election

The latest accord was reached during a weeklong

reconciliation summit which began on Monday

in the country's capital, Bangui. The talks are aimed at ending the religious conflict which claimed thousands of lives and forced over a million people to flee their homes after civil war broke out in March 2013.

The country is currently divided along sectarian lines, with the government controlling the south of the country, which is dominated by Christians, and rebels holding the Muslim north.

The violence has led to "one of the world's worst -- and least visible -- humanitarian crises," according to the UNICEF statement.

At the summit, hundreds of country's political and civic representatives worked to pave the way for national elections which are scheduled for August. The agenda also includes the drafting of a new constitution.

'No mercy' for alleged child rapists

Last week, the UN called for more aid from international community, with donors delivering only 76 million euro ($84 million) out of the required 550 million.

Some 8,500 UN peacekeepers are currently stationed in the Central African Republic, supported by the French Operation Sangaris.

Recently, French soldiers were

accused of abusing children, promising them food in exchange for sexual acts

. President Francois Hollande has vowed to "show no mercy" if the peacekeepers are found guilty.

dj/kms (AFP, Reuters)

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