Record numbers of child soldiers drafted into Congo war

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The Independent Online

Record numbers of children are being recruited to fight on the front line of eastern Congo's escalating and increasingly brutal conflict, it is claimed today.

Concern over the plight of child soldiers increased after aid workers for Save the Children reported seeing youngsters in militia close to some of the worst of the fighting near Goma, capital of the war-torn North Kivu district. The charity says that as well as acting as combatants, children are being recruited to work as porters, spies and sex slaves by the rampaging armies. There was also evidence, the charity said, that militias were targeting schools to boost their numbers as clashes between government soldiers and rebels forced 800,000 people to flee their homes in the region, contributing to a major humanitarian emergency as people were left without access to clean water or health care. Hussein Mursal, Save the Children's country director, called on the international community to step in to prevent another generation of Congolese children from being brutalised by armed conflict. "The situation for children is eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is catastrophic. Fighters from all sides are using children as frontline fodder, raping young girls and attacking houses," he said.

Ex-child soldiers have told aid workers how they were held captive for days in appalling conditions, either as a punishment from their own side or as prisoners of war.

Demobilised child soldiers cannot be returned to their homes for fear of being recruited again, the charity said. In the past year, the charity has demobilised 800 children from the armed groups.

The conflict in the mineral rich eastern Congo remains one of Africa's most intractable and deadly problems despite the end of a four-year war there in 2002 which drew in armies from half a dozen countries. Historic elections held last year, the first free vote in more than 40 years, also failed to stem the violence.

Its continuance is being fuelled in part by rebels accused of orchestrating neighbouring Rwanda's 1994 genocide who were expelled from the country went to eastern Congo. One of those groups, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda, responsible for the deaths of 500,000 people, is among the most active recruiters of child soldiers, according to a recent United Nations report.

The UN Security Council has voted unanimously to extend the 18,000-strong UN peacekeeping mission in Congo for another year, the largest currently deployed anywhere in the world. It urged the Congolese government to address the crisis "in a comprehensive way". Congo's Interior Ministry has called a peace summit for Thursday to try to end the fighting in North Kivu.

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