New Hope for Children in Ongoing Central African Republic Conflict

Eight rebel groups in the Central African Republic have agreed to release children they held captive during the country's bloody sectarian conflict.

Violence Continues In Central African Republic
BANGUI, CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC - APRIL 5: In this handout image provided by the United Nations, internally displaced children sit outside the main mosque on April 5, 2014 in Bangui, Central African Republic. Violent clashes between Muslim rebels and largely Christian militias have killed many and caused thousands of refugees to flee to neighboring African nations. (Photo by Evan Schneider/UN Photo via Getty Images)

Amid reports that more than 700 women and children were freed from Boko Haram in recent weeks, the United Nations has more good news from a forgotten conflict in nearby Central African Republic (CAR). Eight opposing militias there have signed a deal to release all children affiliated with the groups.

The deal, signed Tuesday during an ongoing weeklong reconciliation conference in the capital city of Bangui, offers amnesty and medical treatment to the some 10,000 children who were conscripted against their will to fight for the groups or kept hostage as sex slaves and menial laborers.

UNICEF has labeled CAR as one of the worst places in the world for children to live. The role of children in the conflict re-emerged last week after a whistleblower from the U.N. accused French peacekeepers stationed there of sexually abusing children they were supposed to protect. There are currently 8,500 U.N. peacekeepers stationed in CAR.

The new deal marks a major step toward peace in the war-ravaged country, where thousands of people have been killed since March 2013, when then-President François Bozizé was ousted by Islamist Seleka rebels.

The coup led to sectarian violence, largely unprecedented in the former French colony, which gained independence in 1960.

After Seleka-backed Michel Djotodia took power, the anti-Balaka, composed of Christian militia groups, sought revenge, and violence between the Muslim and Christian populations there spiraled out of control. Splinter groups soon emerged, and the conflict has forced more than 1 million people from their homes. Djotodia resigned in January 2014, and nonpartisan Catherine Samba-Panza became the interim president.

Last September, the U.N. took over the peacekeeping mission in CAR, and the United States reopened its embassy in Bangui. Despite some international intervention, the fighting has continued. This week’s reconciliation talks are intended to draft a new constitution for the country and prepare for upcoming national elections, which could be difficult to organize if the conflict is not resolved.

But if eight of the country’s rebel groups have already agreed to release thousands of children after only two days, the country’s population of 4.5 million has reason to hope progress could be near.

Photo credit: Evan Schneider/UN Photo via Getty Images

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