By Faith Nyasuguta
The United Nations has revealed that government forces have rescued kidnapped children who were forcefully recruited by Al-Shabaab jihadist group in northern Mozambique.
However, UN child agency UNICEF said it could not give more details on the numbers of minors involved, over the fear of endangering efforts to unshackle more children.
“Children have been rescued, not released” by the militants, Unicef James Elder revealed to reporters in Geneva, Switzerland. They were saved by “government forces,” he said.
Since 2017, the Islamic State-linked Al-Shabaab has been terrorizing Mozambique’s gas-rich Cabo Delgado region. They have been raiding villages and towns in an effort to establish a caliphate.
Over the years, the insurgency has grown bolder, with attacks involving coordinated raids on Palma in March 2021 that left scores dead and also displaced thousands.
Last week, the Human Rights Watch indicated that the Al-Shabaab had abducted hundreds of boys in the northeastern region and coerced them into joining their ranks as child soldiers.
“There are thousands of children who have been displaced” since the March attacks, Elder said.
“In those areas… we consider thousands of children to be at risk and certainly no children so far have been released.”
Adding, “I’d like to give you more details on any children rescued, but of course we don’t want to endanger any ongoing negotiations.”
Elder further said that as humanitarian access to Cabo Delgado started to improve, there were rising reports of kidnappings and usage of children in armed groups.
He also confirmed that Unicef has some evidence of sexual violence against girls and forced marriages of girls.
Elder revealed that video material acquired by troops in a deserted training camp — something Unicef has not yet been able to verify — seems to show kidnapped children as young as five years “handling weapons and being indoctrinated to fight”.
Some other fresh reports of kidnappings also left “little doubt that children are being forcefully recruited by this non-state armed group,” he said.
“All feasible measures should be taken to ensure that children are demobilized, disengaged, or otherwise released, and provided with all appropriate protection services for their social reintegration.”
Under the international legal standards, minors linked with armed groups are primarily treated as survivors of violations.
The UN children’s agency said it is working closely with the government of Mozambique to aid the physical and mental health of rescued soldiers and support their safe reintegration into their communities.
Unicef has also been educating the Mozambican forces on what to do when they encounter minors with armed groups.
So far, the insurgency has seen over 3,300 people dead, with 50 per cent of them civilians and about 800,000 displaced people from their homes over the past four years.
In July this year, Rwanda sent in 1,000 troops to help Mozambique and a number of the nation’s neighbors, spearheaded by South Africa, have followed suit.