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UN agency expresses concern over thousands of children in armed groups

NAIROBI, 5 Apr 2005 (IRIN) - Despite 3,313 children being disarmed in the last six months in Congo's northeastern district of Ituri, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) has expressed concerned over thousands others yet to be released by armed groups.

"While the number of children who have left the armed forces and various armed groups has increased in Ituri, we are deeply concerned about the low numbers of girls who have been released," Trish Hiddleston, the UNICEF child protection officer in the DRC, said on Monday.

UNICEF called on all armed groups and forces to release immediately, all girls and boys still held - irrespective of their role in the group - to allow them to resume their normal lives with their families and to return to school.

It said the 3,313 who had left the armed groups had undergone a disarmament and community reintegration (DCR) process. Of these children, child protection agencies had received 399; 2,914 others - 2,353 boys and 561 girls - have undergone DCR in seven centres across Ituri since September 2004.

Hiddleston said UNICEF estimated that in Ituri alone, at least 3,000 more children were still in the hands of armed groups and that an even greater number remained in armed groups in the rest of the country.

Armed groups use children for combat, as porters, cooks and cleaners.

"Often, girls and boys are also not only victims of daily psychological, verbal and physical violence, but also sexual violence which exposes them to HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases and pregnancy," UNICEF said.

"It is especially hard for children, both girls and boys to resume their normal lives due to the psychological and physical harm and stigma caused by such violations," it added.

The agency said although adult combatants must surrender at least one weapon to enter the disarmament process, this condition did not apply to children joining child protection partners' programmes.

At a DCR site, there is a separate space for children - supported by UNICEF in collaboration with child protection partners - where they are registered and referred to a transit care facility. Family tracing is then carried out if the children cannot be immediately reunified with their families.

"We and our child protection partners ensure their temporary care and protection until they are reunited with their families," UNICEF said.

In collaboration with the Congolese government's disarmament coordinating body, CONADER, NGOS and UN agencies provide money and technical aid for emergency transit care, family tracing and reunification, psychosocial care, education, recreation and skills training, reintegration as well as prevention of recruitment.

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