The Ugandan government has handed over dozens of children who had crossed into the country with more than 1,000 fighters of the defeated M23 rebel group earlier this month to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, officials said Friday.
Ugandan military authorities have screened at least 46 children from the rebel fighters and handed them over the UN’s refugee agency for special care and protection, Lucy Beck, the agency’s spokeswoman in western Uganda said.
This is the first group to be handed over to the UN since M23 rebel fighters surrendered to Uganda, to escape from a Congolese army offensive, raising peace prospects in the mineral-rich but restive nation. “Minors have been removed from the cantonment where the other fighters are being held, they are now under our care,” Ms. Beck said.
In October, the U.S. froze military aid to Rwanda over the use of child soldiers by the M23 rebels. UN researchers accuse Rwanda of creating and backing the M23, although Kigali denies the accusations. Despite Congo’s U.N.-backed troops taking over all the M23 former stronghold towns and hills near the border with Uganda, refugees continue to flock into Uganda, citing harassment from the Congolese army, the UN refugee agency said Friday.
“We have around 2,000 refugees at our transit center, more are coming in on a daily basis,” said Ms. Beck. A Congolese army spokesman could not be reached for immediate comment.
The Congolese army is partly blamed for the unending insurgencies in the region, according to aid officials. But in the past few months, the hitherto shambolic army, backed by a robust U.N. combat brigade, has appeared to redeem itself, driving the M23 rebels from North Kivu in a rapid offensive.
Ofwono Opondo, Uganda’s government spokesman, said that Uganda won’t hand over the remaining fighters until a peace deal between the M23 rebels and the Congolese government is signed. Last week, the two parties were due to sign a peace agreement but the Congolese government rejected the deal at the last minute, dashing hopes of a definitive end to the longstanding conflict.
Congo’s information minister Lambert Mende said that Kinshasa is only willing to sign a “declaration ending the M23 insurgency and not a peace agreement with a defeated group.”
Wall Street Journal