UNICEF says an armed militia group in Central African Republic has released 163 children, some of thousands who have been conscripted in jobs like cooks, messengers, and even combatants.

The children were released at a handover 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.

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. UNICEF says it expects hundreds more will be freed by year-end.

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 impoverished country.