UNITED NATIONS (CNN) -- More than 200 children recruited to serve with militias in the Democratic Republic of Congo have been released by the fighters and are being returned to their families, an official for the U.N. children's agency said Saturday.
Adult government troops patrol North Kivu region in Congo, where militias often use child soldiers.
Obtained after negotiations persuading fighters to stop drafting children into their force, the release was the first time this year that a militia group has voluntarily handed over children from its ranks, according to a UNICEF official.
Humanitarian and international governmental agencies deplore the recruitment and abduction of children by armed groups looking to fill the ranks of their fighting force.
In this instance, 232 children, some as young as 13, had been recruited to fight alongside Mayi Mayi forces on Congo's volatile eastern border with Uganda and Rwanda, the official said.
The children, who belonged to three Mayi Mayi brigades, were handed over to child protection specialists after UNICEF and the children's charity Save the Children negotiated their release with the militias.
According to Pernille Ironside, a child protection specialist for UNICEF, all the children released were volunteers most likely encouraged by their families to join the Mayi Mayi, a pro-government militia operating in eastern Congo.
The first group of 182 children was separated this month from a Mayi Mayi brigade in the North Kivu town of Beni. The brigade arrived voluntarily at a center set up to integrate militia fighters into the national army, Ironside told CNN.
The remaining children were released from two other brigades -- 30 in Bweremana in North Kivu on Wednesday and 20 others earlier in the week in the South Kivu town of Fizi, she said. She said efforts to return the children to their families were under way.
The release was only secured after intensive discussion to persuade the militias to stop drafting children into their armies, Ironside said.
"The Mayi Mayi has ambitions to be part of the Congolese army," she told CNN by phone from the east Congolese town of Goma. "We explained to them this was only feasible if they gave up using children."
Among those recently released were nine girls.
Ironside said it was difficult to persuade the rebels to give up girl combatants, who she said were often kept as sex slaves by the militia leaders.
Although the civil war in Congo officially ended in 2003, recent fighting in eastern Congo between government forces and rebels has caused tens of thousands to flee their homes.
Since 2004, around 29,000 children have been demobilized and separated from armed groups in Congo, according to the United Nations. However, Ironside said this is the first time this year that a militia group has voluntarily handed over children from its ranks.
Ironside estimated that up to 2,000 child soldiers are still working with armed groups in the area. E-mail to a friend
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