A regional militia allied with Nigerian government forces freed almost 900 children it used in the war against Islamist Boko Haram insurgents, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said.
The move brought the total number of children freed to more than 1,700, a UNICEF statement said. Non-state armed groups embroiled in the decade-long conflict against Boko Haram recruited over 3,500 children between 2013 and 2017 in Nigeria’s north-east, according to the Fund.
“This is a step in the right direction for the protection of children’s rights and must be recognised and encouraged,” UNICEF Nigeria chief Mohamed Fall said, referring to Friday’s release by the militia group, which works with the military to fight Boko Haram.
“Children of north-east Nigeria have borne the brunt of this conflict. They have been used by armed groups in combatant and non-combatant roles and witnessed death, killing and violence.”
The militia group committed to ending their use of children in conflict in September 2017. Last October, 833 were released.
It is not clear how many children in total are in Nigerian armed groups, including Boko Haram, or how they have been recruited. Videos seen by Reuters show child soldiers rescued from Boko Haram demonstrating to how they were trained to fight and shoot.
Nigeria’s war against two jihadist groups, Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province, left more than 30,000 dead and displaced millions more, with the Islamist insurgencies showing little sign of ending.
Residents of north-east Nigeria formed the militia, called the Civilian Joint Task Force, to help take on Boko Haram, which arose from the same communities. Some credit the militia with making early headway against Boko Haram in urban areas, using local knowledge to identify people affiliated with the militants also drawing allegations it sometimes settles scores in local feuds.
UNICEF’s work in north-east Nigeria angered authorities. In December, the military briefly suspended the agency’s work amid allegations UNICEF staff spied on behalf of militants.