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South Sudan vowed on Monday to end its use of child soldiers by the end of the year, as the former
SPLA child soldiers waiting for food
900 south Sudan children remain under arms as 22,000 former child fighters quit SPLA.
rebel force works to transform itself into a regular army ahead of a 2011 independence referendum.
More than 22,000 former child fighters with the Sudan People's Liberation Army have returned to civilian life in the past decade, but some 900 children remain under arms, according to the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF.
However, SPLA chief of staff James Hoth, speaking at the launch of a special child protection unit inside the army’s headquarters in the southern capital, promised to end the use of under-age soldiers.
"We are fighting for our children so that they can enjoy their freedom in their own country, and our future lies with the children," he said.
"We cannot recruit children again because we are not at war."
The south is still recovering from decades of civil war with the north, when about two million people were killed in a conflict fuelled by religion, ethnicity, ideology and resources including oil.
During the conflict, which ended in 2005 with the signature of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA), the then rebel army recruited thousands of children into special youth units known as the "Red Army."
Many of the children still in the now official southern force rely on the military since they do not have relatives able to support them, or they grew up with their families in army barracks, officials said.
The child support unit, which is backed the United Nations, is part of an action plan signed by the SPLA committing it to release all children by November this year.
"The SPLA by the end of this year will be child-free," said William Deng, head of the southern government’s commission for disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration.
But he also warned that efforts must be made to support those who go back to civilian life.
"If there are no schools or things the children can do, then they will come back to the army," added Deng. "We need to prepare facilities in the villages for these children."
The promises were welcomed by the United Nations.
"Taking a liberation army and transforming it into a professional army is a long road to walk," said Lise Grande, the UN humanitarian coordinator for south Sudan.
"All of us acknowledge today the impressive steps forward that the SPLA have taken."
But she also warned that the SPLA must improve in other areas, including ensuring aid workers can safely do their jobs.
Some four million people, roughly half the population of the south, depend upon some kind of food assistance in order to survive, Grande said.
"However, in a number of areas the humanitarian workers are really struggling to get that food out -- there have been interferences," she added.
"We know that this is a matter of concern for the SPLA, and we are pleased that steps are being taken to address that."
The south is expected in January 2011 to vote in a referendum set up under the CPA, which promised it the chance to choose independence or to remain part of a united Sudan.
However, tensions remain high between the mainly Muslim north and the south, whose people are largely Christian or follow traditional religions.