Amnesty International said on Wednesday that the Democratic Republic of Congo's scheme to release child soldiers - some of whom were as young as six-years-old - and reintegrate them into civilian life was failing.

"The government has not only failed to release thousands of children who remain with armed forces or groups but new child soldiers continue to be recruited, including some who were only recently demobilised and reunited with their families," said Tawanda Hondora, deputy director of Amnesty's Africa programme.

Some 40 per cent of children taken were young girls, most of whom remain unaccounted for. 

Some government officials regarded them as "dependants" of adult fighters, who considered them sexual possessions and did not feel obliged to hand them over.

Bloody conflict

Most of the children who had been through the government reintegration scheme had since received little or no educational support or help to readjust, the organisation said.

 

"The new government must make it their first priority to ensure that all children associated with armed forces and groups are released, protected and provided with meaningful educational and income-generating opportunities to enable them to stay within their communities," Honduras said.

 

"This is the only way to prevent the re-recruitment and further abandonment of these children."

 

The central African country's five-year conflict, from 1998 until 2003, drew in six foreign armies, sparked a vast humanitarian crisis and claimed the lives of more than three million people.

 

It is currently preparing for a presidential run-off election on October 29 between Jean-Pierre Bemba, a former rebel chief turned vice president, and Joseph Kabila, current president of the country.

 

The run-off follows landmark July elections meant to smooth the transition of the former Zaire to democracy, although the elections have been marred by violence in the country's lawless north and north-east.