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Saturday, 26 May, 2001, 05:56 GMT 06:56 UK
Sierra rebels free child soldiers
child soldier
Child soldiers have fought on all sides in the war
Rebels in Sierra Leone have released nearly 600 child soldiers as part of a process of ending the west African country's decade-long civil war.

Oluyemi Adeniji, the head of the United Nations mission in Sierra Leone, said the release "clearly demonstrates the commitment of the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) to the total stoppage of war".

It comes a week after the RUF released more than 200 child soldiers - but thousands of children have been forced or cajoled into the conflict.

We are happy that these children who should have been in school have now dropped their guns

Oluyemi Adeniji,
UN mission head
Children have carried out some of the worst atrocities of the war, including hacking off the limbs of enemies and civilians.

"We are happy that these children who should have been in school and playing with their companions have now dropped their guns," Mr Adeniji said.

But correspondents say the children, some as young as six, will be traumatised for a long time by their horrific experiences.

Signs of progress

The release of the child soldiers is another sign that progress is being made towards ending the civil war in the country, after an announcement ten days ago that rebels and pro-government militias had agreed to start disarming.

A joint statement after the talks said both sides had agreed to give up child soldiers who had fought for them after being abducted from, or cajoled, to leave their villages.

Girl who has been mutilated in the war
The rebels have committed many brutal atrocities
The RUF, which has brought havoc to the country since it embarked on its rebellion, says it will begin a programme of disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration into society without delay.

Both sides will hand over their weapons to United Nations peacekeepers.

The UN peacekeeping force numbers about 12,000 and is the largest of its kind in the world.

A peace accord agreed in Lome in 1999 collapsed a year ago after hundreds of UN peacekeepers were taken hostage by rebels.

But in recent months, the outlook has been more positive, with UN peacekeepers advancing into some rebel-held areas.

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See also:

21 May 01 | Africa
Analysis: Rebels without a future
17 Apr 01 | Africa
New UN deployment in Sierra Leone
09 Apr 01 | Africa
Riding Sierra Leone's roadblocks
23 Mar 01 | Africa
Sierra Leone: Ten years of terror
10 May 00 | Africa
Brutal child army grows up
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