"Ugandan rebels must release child soldiers"

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afrol News, 6 March - Fearful that renewed conflict could put thousands of children and young people at risk, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) yesterday called for the immediate and unconditional release of all children abducted in recent years by the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA), the rebel group fighting the Ugandan government from bases in northern Uganda and southern Sudan. 

The Ugandan military undertook strikes against the LRA in southern Sudan on Sunday 3 March, following weeks of signals from the Ugandan government that its impatience with the LRA was growing.

- The abduction of children by the LRA is an intolerable situation that has dragged on for years, said Carol Bellamy, Executive Director of UNICEF. "It is time for the LRA, as well as those that have influence with the LRA, to bring about the safe, immediate and unconditional release of these children."

- We urge the parties to open a dialogue aimed at demobilizing all those who were abducted or recruited by the LRA as children, Bellamy added. "With renewed fighting underway, children could well be on the front lines." 

She noted that all parties to the conflict have an obligation to protect children. "Any strategy to resolve the broader issues must put children at its centre," she said. "Whatever comes, all international obligations - including the Convention on the Rights of the Child - must be respected to ensure that children are protected."

The LRA has waged a decade-long guerrilla war in northern Uganda and has abducted nearly 10,000 children to be used as soldiers, porters and sex slaves. Many thousands are thought to have died while in LRA captivity. 

According to a UNICEF-supported registration system, 5,555 abducted children are still missing. Children abducted from their homes in Northern Uganda have been forced to march to camps in neighbouring southern Sudan; on the way, many die of disease or starvation. 

As part of their initiation into rebel life, children are made to participate in brutal acts of violence, often being forced to help beat or hack to death fellow child captives who have attempted to escape. Those who survive are forced to take part in combat against the Ugandan army and the Sudan People's Liberation Army. 

Nonetheless, UNICEF said the situation was ripe for change. "We have seen the number of LRA abductions drop over the past three years, from 221 cases in 2000, to 91 in 2001, to none so far this year," Bellamy said. "This encourages us to look for a breakthrough on behalf of all the children caught in this conflict." 

She also noted that renewed diplomatic relations between Uganda and Sudan offered greater opportunities for securing the release of the children. 

Sources: Based on UNICEF

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