Rebels in northeastern Central African Republic (CAR) have agreed to negotiate the release of hundreds of child soldiers in their ranks to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), a spokeswoman said.
"We [the government, rebels and UNICEF] are in agreement on the necessity for these children to be released and reintegrated into their communities as soon as possible," Anne Boher, the communications officer for UNICEF in CAR, told IRIN on Monday.
The first batch of children is expected to be released by 1 June, she said, adding that the discussions began after an assessment mission to Vakaga region in January identified armed children among the rebels.
The children are part of the rebel Union des forces démocratiques pour le rassemblement (UFDR) group. The agreement for their release followed a meeting with a UNICEF delegation led by Jean-Claude Legrand on 14 May in Gordil.
In a statement, UNICEF said Gen Damane Zakaria, head and founder of the UFDR, which controls parts of northeastern CAR close to Sudan's Darfur region, had agreed to release at least 400 child soldiers. A first list of 220 was given to UNICEF last week.
Speaking from his stronghold of Gordil, Zakaria said: "We are shortly signing an accord with UNICEF for the demobilisation and reinsertion of child soldiers within the UFDR."
Gordil is situated in the northeast prefecture of Vakaga where rebel activities were reported last March. Zakaria said the agreement for the release of the children would be signed at the end of May.
"Negotiations over demobilising the child soldiers began in April," he said. "The liberation of these child soldiers will be a good thing for the rebellion because we want all of them to go back to school or learn a job."
The demobilisation of child soldiers will pave the way for hundreds more in the northwest to be released from rebel ranks. In February, the leader of the regional branch of the Armée populaire pour la restauration de la république et de la démocratie (APRD) rebel group appealed for help to demobilise child soldiers in its ranks.
Maj Bertin Wafio said: "I will contribute in demobilising these children who are still willing to go back to school."
The UN hailed the rebel gesture. "This helps resolve one of CAR's most pressing problems," Toby Lanzer, the UN humanitarian coordinator, said.
Boher said an estimated 1,000 children are thought to be serving in various armed groups. UNICEF, she added, expects that all child soldiers in the CAR would be demobilised and reintegrated into their communities within three years.
The UNICEF representative in CAR, Mahimbo Mdoe, thanked the CAR government for its openness and support in the process and said "it is imperative for UNICEF to move fast to free these children from this environment of violence".
Observers say children in rebel-controlled areas no longer have access to education because the schools are closed, which prompted many of them to join the only activity in the region - rebellion.
"They had to join the rebellion because they were targeted by loyal forces who accused them of being rebels’ accomplices," Wafio said.
The rebels are pushing for talks with the government over power sharing in the CAR. In November, they captured five towns - Birao, Sam-Ouandja, Ouanda-Djalle, Ouadda and Ndele - prompting a large number of people to flee their homes.