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S. Sudanese warring factions accused of brutalising children

December 15, 2015 (JUBA) - South Sudan army and rebel commanders deliberately brutalised and recruited children into their ranks, Human Rights Watch said Tuesday.

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Child soldiers sit with their rifles at a ceremony held on 10 February 2015 as part of a disarmament campaign overseen by UNICEF and partners in Pibor (AFP)

The advocacy group called on South Sudanese leaders to help end widespread use of child soldiers by suspending and investigating commanders who have recruited children.

“Thousands of children have fought in the South Sudan conflict, including under commanders from both government and opposition forces,” the right’s body said in a report released Tuesday as South Sudan marked two years since its conflict started.

Forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and the armed opposition (SPLM-IO) leader, Riek Machar, have been accused by both local and international human rights groups of committing atrocities that could amount to war crime and crime against humanity.

The latest report from the New York-based organisation, entitled “‘We Can Die Too’: Recruitment and Use of Child Soldiers in South Sudan,” names more than 15 commanders and officials from both the government Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and the rebel SPLA-In Opposition, and their allies who have used child soldiers.

Th report was reportedly based on interviews with 101 child soldiers “who were either forcibly recruited or joined forces to protect themselves and their communities.”

The children claimed to have lived for months without enough food, far away from their families, and were thrown into terrifying gun battles in which they were injured and saw friends killed. Children also regretted that they lost time they should have spent in school.

“Commanders have deliberately and brutally recruited and used children to fight, in total disregard for their safety and South Sudan’s law,” said Daniel Bekele, Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

“South Sudan authorities should call a halt to the massive recruitment and use of children in this conflict, which deepens the decades-old patterns of abuse,” he added.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 15,000 to 16,000 children may have been used by armed forces and groups in the conflict. A peace accord signed in August by President Kiir and Machar has not halted the conflict.

Some 2.2 million people have reportedly been displaced, many from villages or towns that were burned and pillaged.

Meanwhile Human Rights Watch called on the UN Security Council, which began imposing sanctions on South Sudanese individuals in mid-2015, to take more actions.

“Sanction commanders who recruited child soldiers, and others credibly accused of committing serious human rights violations. The Security Council should also impose an arms embargo on both sides to stop the flow of weapons that could be used to commit abuses into the country,” the rights entity said in a statement.

A government military commander, Matthew Puljang, and his forces who fought in Unity state as well as Johnson Olony, who has fought with both the government and opposition in Upper Nile state, have been accused of recruiting children into their ranks.

Olony’s forces reportedly recruited boys from just outside a UN base protected by peacekeepers as well as in the town of Malakal. Government commissioners, who were active during war, reportedly used child soldiers in the Unity state capital, Bentiu.

According to Human Rights Watch, boys also fought under opposition commanders including James Koang, Peter Gadet and Makal Kuol. Another opposition commander reportedly took hundreds of boys from two schools in Unity state in the conflict’s first days.

“They said we must join the army, if not they would beat us. My two colleagues refused to go and they beat them,” one 15-year-old boy told the New York-based entity in reference to South Sudan government army recruitment drive in oil-rich Unity state.

“We defeated and killed a lot of people,” another 15-year-old said, adding " We were shooting, me and the other young kids. We were afraid but we had to do it anyway".

(ST)