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Child Soldiers to be Freed From U.N.-Monitored Detention Camps in Nepal

Hundreds of former child soldiers who once fought for Nepal's Maoist rebels will finally be released from the U.N.-monitored detention camps they have called home for the past three years to begin new lives as civilians.

Rather than joy at escaping the watch of the armed guards who monitor the barbed wire-lined fences of the camps, many of the young fighters were upset Wednesday at the thought of having to turn in their green camouflage uniforms and leave their comrades behind.

"They are all very emotional at having to leave the camps, but they all realize it is something that is necessary to keep the peace process alive," said Gopal Pandey, the deputy commander of a camp in Dudhauli, about 125 miles southwest of Katmandu.

Nearly 20,000 former rebel fighters — formally known as the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) — have lived in seven main camps since 2006, when they gave up their 10-year armed rebellion to join a peace process and enter mainstream politics. U.N. monitors found that 2,975 of the fighters were under 18.

As part of the peace process, the rebels were supposed to be integrated into Nepal's military. But the army chief's refusal to do so has led to a political scandal in which the Maoists — who won the most seats in elections last year — resigned from the government.

The process of releasing the child soldiers — who were never going to be enrolled in the national army — is going forward, however, starting with 371 of the former fighters at the Dudhauli camp who were being released Thursday.

The young former rebels have been issued special identification cards that will allow them to go to school or college, take up vocational training or start businesses with the help of government and U.N. agencies.

Still, not all were happy about giving up the life of a soldier.

"I have no idea why I am made to leave the camp," said Ratan Rai, a babyfaced former soldier who was scheduled for release.

He claimed that he was 23 and had never been a child soldier. He questioned why soldiers below his age were allowed to serve in the national army.