DAKAR (Reuters) - Armed groups in Central African Republic released more than 300 enslaved children on Thursday as part of a United Nations-brokered deal as the country turns to healing after two years of conflict.
An estimated 6,000-10,000 children are thought to be working as sex slaves or menial workers such as cooks and messengers for rival militias in the historically unstable former French colony.
Leaders of the armed groups signed a pact last week for their release during a peace forum in the capital Bangui.
“After two years of heavy fighting, the release of children by these groups - on the same day - is a real step towards peace,” said Mohamed Malick Fall, representative for the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF, which helped secure their release.
The 357 released children freed in the town of Bambari, about 200 kilometres northeast of Bangui, were given medical screenings and efforts are underway to trace their families.
Violence broke out in the historically unstable country in March 2013 when mostly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power.
Christian gangs known as anti-balaka carried out reprisal attacks and drove out thousands of Muslims from the south, diving the country along religious lines.
Thousands of people are thought to have died in the fighting and more than a million people have been displaced.
In an agreement hailed by the U.N. as an important step towards peace, 10 armed groups agreed at the weekend to a peace accord requiring them to disarm and potentially face justice for war crimes.
Interim leader Catherine Samba-Panza plans elections later this year, with the support of French and U.N. peacekeeping missions.