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Rebel groups release hundreds of child soldiers in Central African Republic

Armed groups in the Central African Republic have released hundreds of child soldiers as part of a deal with UNICEF. The agency estimates that up to 10,000 children are working for fighters in the African nation.

More than 300 children, some who were under 12 years old, were set free under

a United Nations-brokered deal

on Thursday.

Under the deal, the leaders of 10 armed groups operating in the region agreed to discharge all children under their control, and to not recruit any others.

It's the biggest single release of child soldiers since violence broke out in 2012.

Three separate ceremonies were held to mark the occasion near the town of Bambari, with children freed from the ranks of Christian militia and Muslim rebel groups.

A representative from the UN's children's agency, UNICEF, Mohamed Malick Fall, said the event was encouraging.

"After two years of heavy fighting, the release of children by these groups – on the same day – is a real step towards peace," he said.

"Violence and suffering can now give way to a brighter future for children."

The deal to free the 357 children was finalized earlier this month at a reconciliation forum in the nation's capital, Bangui.

UNICEF says it will reunite some of the children with relatives, while others will be put with foster families while they try to locate relatives.

They have already been medically screened, and will be provided with psychosocial support as they return to normal life.

The latest round of conflict broke out in 2013, when the largely Muslim Seleka rebel alliance

ousted President Francois Bozize.

In retaliation, Christians formed vigilante groups targeting Muslim civilians accused of helping support the dominant Muslim regime.

Tens of thousands of citizens fled into neighboring countries to escape the bloodshed, with roughly 25 percent of its population displaced since December 2013.

UNICEF says it believes there are still between 6,000 and 10,000 children working among the fighters in jobs such as cooks and messengers. They are also concerned over the numbers of girls and young women who have been forced into sexual relationships with fighters.

The agency has called for more funding to help with reintegrating the children, saying as of April 30 this year it had only received $17 million (14.9 million euros) out of the $73.9 million (65 million euros) it needed.

The Central African Republic is also in the middle of a child sex scandal, in which several

French peacekeeping soldiers are accused of abusing young children

during the crisis.

an/kms (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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