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The UN's children's agency on Friday charged that armed movements in the Central African Republic were recruiting more children, including as soldiers, in the wake of a successful coup by rebels.
"UNICEF has clear evidence of the continuing recruitment and use of children by armed groups in the Central African Republic," the agency said in a statement, urging leaders on the ground to fight the "grave violation of international law."
Even before the latest insurgency began last December, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said it estimated that more than 2,000 boys and girls were "associated with armed groups".
Since then, "there has been an increase in terms of the geographic scope and the magnitude of the practice," UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado told reporters in Geneva, without providing specific estimates.
"The past four months of widespread lawlessness and insecurity and lack of access by humanitarian workers to large parts of the country is placing children at greater risk than ever," she said, pointing out that last month's coup had not improved matters.
The Central African Republic was plunged into chaos when the Seleka rebel coalition seized power on March 24 after a rapid-fire assault on the capital Bangui, on the grounds that ousted leader Francois Bozize had failed to abide by a January peace deal.
Mercado said both boys and girls had been recruited by both sides in the conflict and were being used, among other things, as "spies, porters, messengers, cooks in addition to fighting on the front lines."
Mercado said the UN agency had urged the new leadership in the Central African Republic - currently headed by Seleka strongman Michel Djotodia - "to immediately release children associated with armed groups, and the new authorities in Bangui have indicated their intention to identify and release children among the ranks of armed groups."
Since 2007, UNICEF has helped release and rehabilitate more than 1,000 children from armed and self-defence groups in the chronically unstable and impoverished country, it said.