NAIROBI (AFP) - The UN children's agency, Unicef, warned Friday (Aug 19) of a "spike" in the recruitment of child soldiers to fight in South Sudan's civil war.
"All the different groups are recruiting," said Justin Forsyth, deputy executive director of Unicef.
"There is a mobilisation going on in some of those remote areas to get people into these armed groups because people fear the violence will escalate and they're taking advantage of that to recruit these very young people."
An estimated 16,000 children have been recruited by armed groups - including the national army - since civil war began in December 2013. Last year Unicef helped free 1,775 former child soldiers from various armed groups, but Forsyth warned that recent fighting which engulfed the capital Juba last month and has thrown a shaky peace deal into doubt would lead to fresh recruitment.
"At this precarious state in South Sudan's short history, Unicef fears that a further spike in child recruitment could be imminent," he said.
An estimated 650 children have been recruited so far this year.
"The dream we all shared for the children of this young country has become a nightmare," Forsyth said, adding that children had been among the many victims of "rape, sexual exploitation and abduction as a weapon of war".
The war in South Sudan has been characterised by atrocities committed by both those loyal to President Salva Kiir and those fighting for his former deputy Riek Machar. Tens of thousands have been killed and around 2.5 million forced from their homes.
A peace agreement signed in August 2015 has so far failed to stop the fighting in the world's newest nation, independent only since 2011.
In the most recent fighting last month Machar's forces were pushed from the capital to which they had returned under the peace agreement. Machar fled South Sudan for neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo and has been replaced in the so-called unity government by a former friend and ally, Taban Deng Gai.
The UN Security Council last week authorised the deployment of 4,000 additional UN peacekeepers with a stronger mandate after a series of failures to protect civilians, including foreign aid workers, from rape and attack. No date has yet been given for when the new force might be deployed.