A militia fighting the Islamist militant group Boko Haram in north-east Nigeria released 833 children from its own ranks, some as young as 11, the UN children’s agency UNICEF said.
UNICEF spokesman Christophe Boulierac said the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF) was formed in 2013 by vigilante groups in Borno state to fight Boko Haram which gained international notoriety for kidnapping schoolgirls in Chibok.
The CJTF signed an action plan in September 2017 to end child recruitment and the release of the children, 40% 15 or younger, was its first formal release.
“This is a significant milestone in ending recruitment and use of children, but many more children remain in the ranks of other armed groups in either combat or support roles,” UNICEF Nigeria Deputy Representative Pernille Ironside said in a statement.
The released children were among 1,175 boys and 294 girls identified as being associated with the CJTF in Maiduguri, UNICEF said, although the total has yet to be verified and could include another 2,200 or more children.
It said it supported the social and economic reintegration of more than 8,700 children released from armed groups since 2017, helping trace families, returning them to communities and offering psycho-social support, education, vocational training and informal apprenticeships.
Boulierac said the CJTF included children “pursuing military objectives” and many in support roles, so reintegration into society might be easier than those released from an armed group like Boko Haram.
That Islamist group kidnapped thousands since it began an insurgency in 2009 aimed at creating an Islamic state in the north-east.
“As far as the Nigerian government is concerned, the CJTF is a local intelligence gathering group. The defence ministry does not have evidence of armed soldiers who are under age,” said presidency spokesman Garba Shehu.
Nigeria’s government said since December 2015 Boko Haram was “technically defeated”, 20 months after kidnapping of the 270 Chibok girls.
Attacks continue in the north-east, while Islamic State West Africa, which splintered off from Boko Haram in 2016, holds territory around Lake Chad.