U.N.: Child Soldiers to Be Sent Home in Central African Republic

Rebel leaders in the Central African Republic have agreed to begin sending several hundred child soldiers home to their families, United Nations officials said Friday.

Gen. Damane Zakaria, whose army controls a portion of the northeast of the country, had agreed to liberate around 400 children. An initial list of 220 child soldiers was handed to UNICEF last week, UNICEF spokeswoman Anne Boher said in a statement.

Contacted by telephone in his rebel stronghold of Gordil, 620 miles by land from Bangui, Zakaria confirmed that the rebel Union of Democratic Forces Coalition is prepared to sign an agreement with the U.N. agency in coming days. He estimated that about 500 children will be freed as a result of the accord.

"The liberation of these child soldiers will be a good thing for the rebellion because we want all of them to go back to school or learn a job," Zakaria said.

Central African Republic has suffered decades of army revolts, coups and rebellions since it gained independence from France in 1960. Poor and landlocked, it is governed by President Francois Bozize, who came to power in a 2003 rebel war that ousted his predecessor.

There are an estimated 1,500 child soldiers still active in the country, said a government official who requested anonymity because he is not a sanctioned spokesman.

The demobilization of the child soldiers follows the signing of a peace accord last month between Zakaria's men and the government. The group led by Zakaria, however, is only one of several rebel factions active in the nation of 3.6 million.

"Despite CAR not being listed amongst the signatories of the Paris Principles, which call upon state parties to demobilize children enrolled in armed forces ... this move signals a voluntary step on the part of armed groups in CAR toward respecting children's rights," Boher said.