BANGUI (Reuters) - A militia in the Central African Republic released 163 enslaved children on Friday, partly fulfilling a pledge made as part of a U.N.-brokered deal, a U.N. agency said.
The children, freed by the mostly Christian anti-Balaka militia, are among more than 6,000 thought to have been made to do menial work such as cooking or cleaning, or as fighters, for armed groups.
The anti-Balaka militia itself is believed to be still holding many more children, like other groups on both sides of the country’s religiously-colored conflict.
“This release is a sign that the process of implementing the commitment made by the leaders of these groups, as a part of the peace and reconciliation process, is on track,” said Mohamed Malick Fall from U.N. children’s agency UNICEF which facilitated their release in the northern town of Batangafo.
He added that hundreds of other children were expected to be released before year end. More than 350 were freed by armed groups in May.
Elsewhere in the former French colony, violence has increased in recent days following a period of relative calm since a U.N.-brokered peace deal in May.
Clashes between rival militias broke out in the central region of Bambari, killing about 10 people, after anti-Balakas beheaded a Muslim youth last week.
United Nations Refugee Agency UNHCR said several thousand people had been forced from their homes by the renewed violence.
UNHCR representative Kouassi Lazare Etien said he was worried about the vulnerability of Sudanese refugees trapped in a camp nearby who were at “high risk of attacks”.
The country was plunged into violence in March 2013 when mostly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power, triggering a conflict thought to have killed thousands.
The Seleka-backed government was forced to step down the following year and anti-Balaka groups drove out many minority Muslims from the south, leading to de facto partition.
French and U.N. peacekeeping forces are in the country to help ease the process back to democratic rule ahead of elections later this year.
Writing by Emma Farge; editing by Andrew Roche