By Crispin Dembassa-Kette and Tom Miles
BANGUI/GENEVA (Reuters) - Armed factions in Central African Republic agreed on Tuesday to free all child soldiers and other children used as sex slaves or menial workers, boosting U.N.-driven efforts at national reconciliation after two years of turmoil.
The pact signed by the eight main militia groups in the landlocked ex-French colony covers an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 children, according to United Nations child agency UNICEF. Armed groups also pledged to end the recruitment of children.
The accord emerged from a week-long national reconciliation forum which began on Monday with the goal of ending conflict that has killed thousands and driven more than a million people from their homes.
"This is a major step forward for the protection of children in this country," said Mohamed Malick Fall, UNICEF envoy to Central African Republic.
"The Central African Republic is one of the worst places in the world to be a child and UNICEF is eager to work with local authorities to help reunite these children with their families."
Central African Republic is divided between a government-controlled, Christian-dominated south and a Muslim, rebel-held north. Several thousand U.N. peacekeepers and French troops seek to maintain calm.
The parties to Tuesday's deal will agree a schedule for the release of the children and their return to their families as well as protection and support to help them rebuild their lives, UNICEF said.
The armed groups have agreed to give UNICEF and its partners unrestricted access to areas under their control to identify the children and plan their release.
"If UNICEF finds child soldiers in our ranks they will automatically be demobilized," said Captain Ahmat Nejad, spokesman for the Union for the Peace in Central Africa (UPC), a faction of the Seleka rebels that briefly seized power in 2013.
Last year, UNICEF helped to get more than 2,800 children released by armed factions, including 646 girls. In 2013, 500 children were freed, the agency said.
Nejad said his armed group had demobilised some child soldiers in cooperation with UNICEF in 2013 and 2014. "We ask UNICEF to teach these children a profession as almost all of them are orphans," he said.
UNICEF spokesman Christophe Boulierac said it was necessary to be cautious before declaring the end of child soldiers in the turbulent nation.
"This is a starting point," he said, noting that the deal had been signed by the vast majority of the parties to the conflict, as well as religious leaders and civil society.
Even with foster families taking in some children, their reintegration would be challenging, he said: "It's a very difficult and long process to ensure the transition of a child armed with a Kalashnikov (assault rifle) back into normal family life."
(Reporting by Tom Miles in Geneva and Crispin Dembassa-Kette in Bangui; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Mark Heinrich)