The United Nations has announced that armed factions in Central African Republic (CAR) have agreed to free all child soldiers and other children used as sex slaves or menial workers, boosting UN-driven efforts at national reconciliation after two years of turmoil.
The pact signed by the eight main militia groups in the country covers an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 children, the United Nations child agency UNICEF said on Tuesday.
Armed groups also pledged to end the recruitment of children.
The accord emerged from a week-long national reconciliation forum which began on Monday with the goal of ending conflict that has killed thousands, and driven more than a million people from their homes.
Mohamed Malick Fall, the UNICEF envoy to CAR, told Al Jazeera that the pact was "a major milestone for the protection of children in the country".
"UNICEF is working with authorities to help reunite these children with their families."
Fall also said that the pact entails that the armed groups "provide access to UNICEF to monitor the process" to make sure that they are adhering to the terms of the agreement.
Central African Republic is divided between a government-controlled, Christian-dominated south and a Muslim, rebel-held north. Several thousand UN peacekeepers and French troops seek to maintain calm.
Reintegration to society
The parties to Tuesday's deal will agree on a schedule for the release of the children and their return to their families, as well as protection and support to help them rebuild their lives, UNICEF said.
The armed groups have agreed to give UNICEF and its partners unrestricted access to areas under their control to identify the children and plan their release.
"If UNICEF finds child soldiers in our ranks they will automatically be demobilised," said Ahmat Nejad, spokesman for the Union for the Peace in Central Africa (UPC), a faction of the Seleka rebels that briefly seized power in 2013.
Last year, UNICEF helped to get more than 2,800 children released by armed factions, including 646 girls. In 2013, 500 children were freed, the agency said.
But UNICEF spokesman Christophe Boulierac said it was necessary to be cautious before declaring the end of child soldiers in the turbulent nation.
"This is a starting point," he said, noting that the deal had been signed by the vast majority of the parties to the conflict, as well as religious leaders and civil society.
Even with foster families taking in some children, their reintegration would be challenging, he said: "It's a very difficult and long process to ensure the transition of a child armed with a Kalashnikov (assault rifle) back into normal family life".
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies