Nearly 900 children held by a pro-government militia force fighting Boko Haram insurgents in northeastern Nigeria were freed on Friday, the United Nations said.
The 894 children, including 106 girls, had been in the ranks of the government-backed Civilian Joint Task Force, a local militia which supports the Nigerian military against Boko Haram.
At a ceremony in the northeastern town of Maiduguri, they were released as part of Civilian JTF’s “commitment to end and prevent the recruitment and use of children,” the UN children’s agency UNICEF said.
“Children of north-east Nigeria have borne the brunt of this conflict,” said UNICEF chief in Nigeria Mohamed Fall.
“They have been used by armed groups in combatant and non-combatant roles and witnessed death, killing and violence.”
Various vigilante groups in Nigeria’s Borno state formed Civilian JTF in 2013 in to fight the Boko Haram insurgency, and the militia has carried out operations with the Nigerian Army, but it has also recruited children.
According to the U.N., the militia used children as young as nine between October 2015 and August 2017.
Civilian JTF is believed to have between 23,000 and 26,000 members in Borno and Yobe states. The group has been accused of systematic sexual violence, mass executions and diverting food from civilians.
In 2017, the militia signed a promise to stop recruiting child soldiers and release the ones they hold.
The children freed on Friday bring the total released since then to 1,727 children, UNICEF said.
It comes after Civilian JTF released 833 child soldiers last October.
It was not clear how many children remain in its ranks, but the U.N. welcomed the news on Friday.
“Any commitment for children that is matched with action is a step in the right direction for the protection of children’s rights, and must be recognized and encouraged,” Fall said.
The freed children will be enrolled into a reintegration program with education and training to help them return to civilian life.
The jihadist group known as Boko Haram also notoriously uses child soldiers. Boko Haram began its decade-long bloody insurgency in northeastern Nigeria in 2009 but it has since spread into neighboring Niger, Chad and Cameroon, prompting a regional military response.
More than 27,000 people have been killed and two million others displaced, sparking a dire humanitarian crisis in the region. On April 30, the U.S. Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism Nathan A. Sales said that the U.S. assesses that Boko Haram and ISWAP “have been responsible for over 35,000 deaths since 2011.”
Boko Haram split into two factions in mid-2016. One, led by long-time leader Abubakar Shekau, is notorious for suicide bombings and indiscriminate killings of civilians. Shekau pledged allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in March 2015, but ISIS central only gives formal backing to the other faction, which it calls Islamic State West Africa Province.
The ISWAP faction, which largely focuses on attacking military and government targets, was led by Abu Mus’ab Al-Barnawi, but in March, audio recordings revealed that ISIS appointed Abu Abdullah Idris bin Umar, also known as Ibn Umar al-Barnawi, as leader. ISIS has not yet made a public statement confirming the change.
UNICEF says that non-state actors fighting in northeast Nigeria recruited more than 3,500 children as combatants and non-combatants between 2013 and 2017.
“We will continue until there is no child left in the ranks of all armed groups in Nigeria,” Fall said, noting that children “have been abducted, maimed, raped and killed.”
With reporting from AFP