Nepal to free child soldiers from camps shortly

KATHMANDU Wed Dec 16, 2009 10:34am EST

Bhutanese refugee children carry stones in the Timai refugee camp in eastern Nepal March 6, 2005. REUTERS/Desmond Boylan

Bhutanese refugee children carry stones in the Timai refugee camp in eastern Nepal March 6, 2005.

Credit: Reuters/Desmond Boylan

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KATHMANDU (Reuters) - The Nepali government and the former Maoist rebels agreed on Wednesday to start freeing thousands of child soldiers living in Maoist camps within weeks, the U.N. said, three years after a peace deal ended a civil war.

The United Nations estimated in 2007 that nearly 3,000 children were living in camps housing former Maoist fighters, part of a deal to end a decade-long conflict that caused more than 13,000 deaths.

"Today the minors who have spent the last three years in Maoist army cantonments with their lives on hold will finally be able to take the next step toward a more positive future," said Radhika Coomaraswamy, the special representative of the United Nations Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict.

Coomaraswamy said the children would start leaving the camps on December 27 and would all be out within 40 days.

The Maoists had agreed to free the children last year but the process stalled as they squabbled with political rivals on how to implement the decision.

"This agreement shows our full and complete commitment for peace," said Maoist chief Prachanda, who still goes by his nom de guerre or war name.

The U.N. has estimated that another 1,000 people who joined as Maoist fighters after the peace process began in 2006 were also living in camps and must be discharged.

After being freed from camps the children could choose whether to go to school or find a job, authorities said.

Nepal has been under constant U.N. pressure to release the "Maoist army elements disqualified as minors" from the camps. The Maoists deny using child soldiers and say the children were employed only for support services.

The Maoists scored a surprise victory in the election for a special assembly last year.

But they resigned from a coalition government they were heading in a row over the sacking of the country's army chief, a move which plunged the Himalayan nation into political turmoil and stalled the U.N.-monitored peace process.

(Editing by Matthias Williams and Bill Tarrant)

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