Central African Republic militias free over 350 enslaved children

By Emmanuel Braun BAMBARI, Central African Republic (Reuters) - Armed groups in Central African Republic released over 350 enslaved children on Thursday as part of a United Nations-brokered deal as the country turns to healing after two years of conflict. An estimated 6,000-10,000 children are thought to be working as sex slaves or menial workers such as cooks and messengers for rival militias in the historically unstable country. Some of them are less than 12 years old, said the U.N. children's agency UNICEF, which helped secure a deal for their release at a peace forum in the capital Bangui last week. Child soldiers, disguised in forest camouflage with sticks and leaves, handed over knives and machetes in a ceremony in Bambari, a town about 200 kilometres northeast of Bangui. "I want to thank the people who brought us here. We don't want to stay in the army where life is hard," said a 16-year-old girl who fought alongside a Muslim rebel group called Seleka. The girl, who asked not to be named, said she had joined the militia group voluntarily three years ago and had fought in Bangui street battles. The 357 released children were given medical screenings and efforts are under way to trace their families, UNICEF said. "After two years of heavy fighting, the release of children by these groups - on the same day - is a real step towards peace," said UNICEF representative Mohamed Malick Fall in Bambari. Violence broke out in the former French colony in March 2013 when mostly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power. Christian gangs known as anti-balaka carried out reprisal attacks and drove out thousands of Muslims from the south, dividing the country along religious lines. Thousands of people are thought to have died, some from torture and lynchings, and around a million people have been displaced by the fighting. In an agreement hailed by the U.N. as an important step towards peace, 10 armed groups agreed at the weekend to a peace accord requiring them to disarm and potentially face justice for war crimes. Interim leader Catherine Samba-Panza plans elections later this year, with the support of French and U.N. peacekeeping missions. (Reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by Tom Heneghan)