BATANGAFO, Central African Republic (AP) — A militia group released 163 children from its ranks on Friday in Central African Republic, a country where as many as 10,000 youth have become ensnared in the sectarian violence between armed groups since 2013.
The children — including five girls — were handed over at a ceremony in the northern town of Batangafo that was facilitated by the U.N. children's agency and the U.N. peacekeeping mission in the country.
The youth were freed from the Christian militia known as anti-balaka, which still vies with the Muslim Seleka rebels for control of this town where some 30,000 people are living in a refugee camp.
Friday's handover by the anti-Balaka group raises to 645 the number of children released as part of a deal among 10 armed groups in May to release all children from their ranks. However, most of the children freed so far have been from the Christian militia side as those among the ranks of Seleka have been more isolated, officials say.
The agency estimates that 6,000 to 10,000 children have been linked to armed factions since 2013, when deadly violence erupted between Muslims and Christians in the country.
"This release is a sign that the process of implementing the commitment made by the leaders of these groups ... is on track," said Mohamed Malick Fall, UNICEF's Representative. "We fully expect to see hundreds more children released before the end of this year."
The U.N. children's agency seeks to reintegrate the children with families where possible, or provide job and skill training along with psychological services. Still, the youth remain at risk if they return to areas afterward that are still under the control of the fighters.
"The armed groups are retaking territory every day," said Donatien Dewo-Bafounga, a local official in Batangafo. "If these children are not rapidly taken care of they will be conscripted again."