DUDHAULI, Nepal Teary-eyed but hopeful of a bright future, more than 200 former Maoist child soldiers began leaving their jungle camp on Thursday as part of a peace deal that ended a bloody insurrection four years ago.
The group is the first of nearly 4,000 former Maoist soldiers, most of whom were under 18 when the peace deal was signed in 2006, to leave remote jungle camps across Nepal over the next month and try to begin a new life.
The release is a move forward in the fragile peace process that has been stalled since last May after the Maoists walked out of the government in conflict with the president over their attempt to fire the army chief.
Wearing marigold garlands, the former child fighters left the camp, waving at former Maoist army commander Pasang, who goes by one name, at the riverside camp about 100 km (60 miles) southeast of Kathmandu, capital of the Himalayan nation.
The former child fighters, many in their 20s now, left in five buses for their villages, some seated on roof tops with bags in their laps and crying.
"I am very sad to leave other colleagues with whom we stayed for so long," said 22-year-old Laxmi Gautam, who joined the Maoist organization five years ago.
Others said they were proud that the monarchy has been abolished and Nepal was now a republic.
"Without struggle, that would not have been possible. I am proud of it," said Suhana Rana, also 22, as she left the camp.
The Maoists were demanding financial aid for the children but the government has so far refused.
Authorities said the United Nations would support schooling for children for up to grade 12, or vocational training, micro-enterprises and training as junior health workers.
"Today marks the first step in the return to civilian life for thousands of Nepalis who have been living in cantonment since 2006," said Robert Piper, a UN resident representative in Nepal.
"It is a tearful and proud departure."
The Maoists had agreed to free the children last year but the process stalled as they squabbled with political rivals on how to rehabilitate them.
The Maoists say the discharge is part of their commitment to peace, but have alleged that the government has so far failed to rehabilitate them and the former child rebels were returning to their villages empty handed.
"Since the government is letting them go from the camps without any concrete assurances for their future, they could engage in any coercive activities and create new problems," said Bishnu Raj Upreti, who teaches conflict management at Kathmandu University's Human and Natural Resources Study Center.
The Maoists had been under constant U.N. pressure to release their "army elements disqualified as minors" from the camps.
In 2008, the Maoists scored a surprise victory in the election for a special assembly meant to prepare a new constitution, the first after Nepal abolished the monarchy and turned into a republic, a major condition in the peace deal.
(Editing by Bappa Majumdar)