Congo army continues to use underage fighters

Hundreds of children serve in the army brigades, according to Human Rights Watch.
DAKAR, Senegal (AP) -- Congo's new government has failed to stop the use of child soldiers -- merging forces of former warlords into the regular army without weeding out hundreds of underage fighters, an international human-rights group said Thursday.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said 300 to 500 children, some as young as 13, are serving in newly combined army brigades in remote North Kivu province. The group said the figures came from local and international child protection workers.
"The head of the army has given the order that child soldiers need to be demobilized and taken out of the ranks, but despite the order, nothing is happening," said Anneke Van Woudenberg, a London-based Congo researcher with Human Rights Watch.
What happened
In one instance last month, the group charged, a brigade commander dragged six children out of a vehicle belonging to child protection workers. Three of the youngsters were later taken in by U.N. peacekeepers, but the other three are unaccounted for, the group said.
Officials in the central African nation's government said they were looking into the allegations, and could not comment until the investigation finishes.
"We have said there will no longer be children in the army," said Maurice Kanyama, counsel to Congo's information minister. "For the moment we can't say yes or no on this. We need to verify it. Around the end of next week you can have some conclusions."
Kemal Saiki, a spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping force in Congo, said the United Nations had previously identified 267 child combatants in North Kivu. He said only 37 had been demobilized as of last week.
"We know very well that in some units they still have children in the ranks," Saiki said. "It's been a widespread practice and we're trying to stop it."
Scene of skirmishes
Congo's North Kivu province has been the scene of sporadic skirmishes since late last year -- first as warlord Laurent Nkunda resisted combining his forces with the army and then as army brigades mounted operations against local armed groups.
A peace deal brought multiparty elections last year and the mineral-rich Congo installed its first democratically elected leader in more than four decades in January. The new government has struggled to gain control of militias loyal to former warlords even as their leaders have joined the government.
Last month, two days of fighting in the capital between army troops and those loyal to a failed presidential candidate left at least 155 dead.
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