South Sudan to end use of child soldiers

Archive photo of SPLA child soldiers being demobilised in 2001
Image caption The SPLA has already demobilised thousands of child soldiers

The army in Southern Sudan has pledged to demobilise all child soldiers by the end of the year.

The Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) has established a child protection unit to fulfil the pledge.

The UN children's agency estimates that the SPLA, thought to have already discharged more than 20,000 children, still includes about 900 in its ranks.

South Sudan, which fought a long civil war against the north, is to hold an independence referendum in January.

Sudan's civil war ended with a peace agreement in 2005, which committed both sides to an extensive process of demobilisation. But tensions have remained high in the run up to the referendum.

'Own country'

"The SPLA by the end of this year will be child-free," said William Deng, head of the south's commission for disarmament, demobilization and reintegration.

It was the government's responsibility to support and school demobilised child soldiers, he said.

"This army doesn't lack manpower. If they wanted they could call millions now. But not children."

SPLA chief of staff James Hoth said the force could not recruit child soldiers because it was not at war.

"We are fighting for our children so that they can enjoy their freedom in their own country, and our future lies with the children," he said.

The SPLA, the south's former rebel movement, had already agreed with the UN to demobilise child soldiers and end their use across southern Sudan.

Lise Grande, the UN's humanitarian co-ordinator, welcomed the SPLA's move and acknowledged "the impressive steps forward that the SPLA have taken".

But she added: "Taking a liberation army and transforming it into a professional army is a long road to walk."

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