By Timothy Mclaughlin
YANGON (Reuters) - Myanmar's military released 53 children and young people from service on Monday as part of an effort to rid its ranks of underage soldiers, the United Nations said.
Human rights groups have long accused Myanmar's military, known as the Tatmadaw, of abuses such as using child soldiers, forcibly recruiting conscripts and confiscating land.
Since the military handed power to a semi-civilian government in 2011, it has taken some steps to professionalize the armed forces, including the release of soldiers recruited while under the age of 18.
"Today's release is the result of continued efforts of the Government of Myanmar and the Tatmadaw to put an end to the harmful practice of recruiting and using children," said Renata Lok-Dessallien, the U.N. Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Myanmar, in a statement.
"I am delighted to see these children and young people returning to their homes and families. We are hopeful that institutional checks that have been put in place and continued efforts will ensure that recruitment of children will exist no more."
The military has released 146 underage recruits this year and 699 since it signed a joint action plan with the U.N. in 2012 to end the use of children in the military.
The U.N. said it had no estimate for the number of underage soldiers in Myanmar. Experts believe Myanmar's military to be between 300,000 and 350,000 strong, but the military does not release data on its size.
Lok-Dessallien also called on armed ethnic groups to stop recruiting child soldiers.
The U.N. Secretary-General has listed seven such groups as being "persistent perpetrators" in the recruitment and use of children in their operations.
They include the powerful Kachin Independence Army, which controls large swathes of Myanmar's northern Kachin State, and the United Wa State Army (UWSA). Operating on the Myanmar-China border, the UWSA is regarded as the largest and best equipped of Myanmar's armed ethnic groups.
The announcement of the release comes amid fighting between the military and ethnic groups in the eastern Shan State, as well as in Kachin.
Activists from Shan State last week accused the military of bombing schools and Buddhist temples, firing on civilians and raping women during its recent offensives.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimates that up to 6,000 people have been displaced by the fighting in Shan and another 1,200, including 500 children, in Kachin.
(This refile adds dropped word in paragraph 7)
(Reporting by Timothy Mclaughlin; Editing by Simon Webb and Sanjeev Miglani)