KINSHASA (AFP) - The head of the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Martin Kobler, on Thursday urged armed groups to free their child soldiers, calling their recruitment "an atrocity".
"Almost 1,000 children have been... recruited by armed groups between January 1, 2012 and August 31, 2013. The children were aged from six to 17 years old," Mr Kobler told a weekly conference of the UN peacekeeping mission in the country, MONUSCO.
"Concrete measures must be taken to protect children from this fate and I invite all the armed groups to free all children from their ranks," he said.
"One thousand child soldiers is an atrocity, one child soldier a tragedy."
A Monusco report released on Wednesday found that just three armed groups in the chronically unstable east of the country accounted for 450 child soldiers.
The Hutu militia Nyatura had 190, the Rwandan Hutu rebel Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) had 136 and the mainly Tutsi Movement of March 23 (M23) had 124.
"Children who were victim of recruitment within the ranks of these armed groups were also victims and witnesses of other grave child rights violations, such as rape, abduction, killing and maiming," a Monusco statement said.
"I say again: one child soldier is one child soldier too many," Mr Kobler said.
"This is the future of the country. Children must go to school and not fight on the battlefield.... We really must ask negative forces to abandon this practice of destroying the lives of children."
The report "shows clear tendencies in the way in which these armed groups recruit children," the UN mission chief added, saying that it would enable Monusco "the better to understand how to prevent this serious violation of human rights, to better... meet the needs of victims" and to better hold those behind child recruitment responsible for their actions.
According to the statement, in the majority of cases, children were abducted and forced to join the groups. Others joined voluntarily, having been promised money, education, jobs and other benefits.
It said children were used as porters, cooks, spies, sex slaves, guards and combatants.
"Minors formerly associated with the M23 described how they were tasked to bury bodies of adults and children who lost their lives during clashes with the Fardc (national army) and other armed groups," it said.
The M23 - whose members are mainly Tutsi fighters from an earlier rebellion who were incorporated into the army in 2009 and then mutinied in 2012 - has become a major source of concern in the volatile, mineral-rich province of North Kivu.
The M23 took control of the provincial capital, Goma, for more than a week late last year before withdrawing under international pressure.
On-off negotiations between the rebels and the government have been under way in Uganda, but stalled again on Monday.
Monusco - which seeks the total demobilisation of the M23 - called on international donors, the government and agencies involved in protecting children to help stop recruitment and provide for sustainable rehabilitation.