Bangui (Central African Republic), Feb 12 (AP) About 10,000 children are still fighting alongside armed groups in Central African Republic more than a decade after civil war broke out, the government said Monday.

Marthe Kirima, the minister for family and gender, said in a statement that children are still being recruited as fighters, spies, messengers, cooks and even used as sex slaves. While 15,000 children have escaped from rebel forces, she said, many are traumatized and find it difficult to return to normal life.

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The mineral-rich but impoverished nation has had conflict since 2013, when predominantly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power and forced then-President Francois Bozize from office. Mostly Christian militias fought back, also targeting civilians.

The United Nations, which has a peacekeeping mission in the country, estimates the fighting has killed thousands and displaced over a million people, or one-fifth of the population. In 2019, a peace deal was reached between the government and 14 armed groups, but fighting continues.

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The UN is trying to prevent children from joining armed groups and make it easier for those released to reintegrate into society. It has created training programmes for them to become mechanics, masons, carpenters or take up other professions.

Some former child soldiers told The Associated Press that their harrowing experiences had pushed them to become peace ambassadors.

“I took up arms because Seleka killed by mother and father,” said Arsene, who insisted on only his first name due to the sensitivity of the situation. He said a Christian rebel group recruited him when he was 14. After three years of fighting, he now tells young people not to join rebel groups.

Ousmane, another former child soldier, said that joining the rebels ruined his life and that of those around him. “What we did is indescribable,” he said.

The Dany Ngarasso Foundation, a local civil society group, called on the government to accelerate the peace process to protect child soldiers.

“They may have fought yesterday, but they can still campaign for peace today," foundation head Ngarasso said. (AP)

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