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The lives of thousands of children are at risk in coup-hit Central Africa because of a lack of access to basic aid, food shortages and the ongoing use of child soldiers, the United Nations said Tuesday.
"About 600,000 children have been affected by the conflict across the country," Marixie Mercado, spokeswoman for the UN's children's agency, told reporters in Geneva.
"Many nutrition centres are closed and looted and an estimated 13,500 children are expected to suffer from life-threatening malnutrition this year," she said.
The Seleka rebel coalition seized power in a deadly offensive in the impoverished nation over the weekend after the collapse of a fragile two-month-old peace deal, forcing president Francois Bozize into exile.
"Since the outbreak of the conflict, UNICEF has received credible reports that rebel groups and pro-government militias have recruited children," Mercado said.
Even before the current crisis, UNICEF estimated that some 2,500 boys and girls were "associated with" armed groups in the Central African Republic, she said.
As tensions increased in the run-up to the coup in recent months, "communities in most of the rebel-controlled areas have been without access to basic services," Mercado said, adding that "health activities have been seriously disrupted, as most doctors have left."
The tense security situation forced UNICEF to evacuate all but four core international staff members from the country on Monday, Mercado said, though the agency still has 65 national staff members on the ground.
"This is happening in a context where many communities have not seen a humanitarian worker in months," she said, noting that road blocks and the presence of armed groups were severely disrupting aid distribution.
At least 166,000 children were also being denied access to education as many schools were closed or without teachers, she added.
Aid operations in the country are seriously underfunded, Mercado said, pointing out that humanitarian agencies before the current crisis had appealed for $129 million (100 million euros) for emergency assistance this year, but have so far received only one percent of that amount.
UNICEF needs another $11.1 million to provide life-saving support to families affected by the conflict, she said.