At least 11,000 children are still with armed groups or unaccounted for more than two years after the Democratic Republic of Congo launched a programme to release and re-integrate child soldiers back into civilian life, Amnesty International said.
The London-based human rights group said Wednesday that the disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) programme, which aimed to help 200,000 combatants, was failing to meet the traumatised youngsters' needs.
A child soldier of the FRPI militia (Patriotic Force of Resistance for Ituri) appears from the bush in south Ituri, eastern DR Congo, July 2006. At least 11,000 children are still with armed groups or unaccounted for more than two years after the Democratic Republic of Congo launched a programme to release and re-integrate child soldiers back into civilian life, Amnesty International said.(AFP/File/Lionel Healing)
Girls in particular were worst affected, with most of those snatched by armed groups in the war-ravaged central African state still unaccounted for, it added in a report critical of the interim power-sharing administration.
In the majority of cases, girls had either been abandoned or misidentified as legitimate "dependents" of adult fighters. President Joseph Kabila's government has done little or nothing to trace them, it added.
In certain areas, Amnesty estimated that girls accounted for less than two percent of the child soldiers released from armed groups and into the DDR programme.
Yet they make up about 40 percent of under-18s illegally used to fight by armed forces and groups, said Tawanda Hondora, the deputy director of Amnesty's Africa programme.
A number of people are said to have testified that commanders and adult fighters often do not feel obliged to release girls, whom they consider their sexual playthings, and some DRC officials are willing to turn a blind eye.
Some girls are said to consider it impossible to leave, fearing recriminations including torture and death if they try to escape.
This has done nothing to stop the new recruitment of children, including some who were only recently demobilised and reunited with their families, said Hondora, urging international action to tackle the problem.
"The new government must make it their first priority to ensure that all children associated with armed forces and groups are released, protected and provided with meaningful educational and income-generating opportunities to enable them to stay within their communities.
"This is the only way to prevent the re-recruitment and further abandonment of these children."
Kabila and Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former rebel chief turned vice president, are involved in a second-round run-off for the mineral rich former Belgian colony's top job on October 29 in the first multi-party poll in 46 years.
The elections -- the first round of which took place on July 30 -- are meant to ensure lasting peace in the former Zaire but have been marred by an increase in violence, particularly in the lawless northeast and east.
The brutal five-year civil war from 1998 to 2003 in DRC -- dubbed "Africa's World War" -- drew in six foreign armies and claimed more than three million lives yet did little to attract the attention of developed nations.
Human rights organisations have expressed hopes that the end of fighting and the holding of democratic elections would improve the lot of children in DRC.
In a report in July, the United Nations Children's Fund noted that more children under the age of five die in DRC each year than in China, which has 23 times the population.
DRC has the world's largest concentration of child soldiers with up to 30,000 children either fighting or living with armed forces, with tens of thousands more living on the streets of its major cities.
Many have been thrown out by their parents either because they were a nuisance or believed to be "possessed"
Copyright © 2006 AFP