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South Sudan begins demobilizing child soldiers

The South Sudanese Defense Ministry has begun phasing child soldiers out of the country's armed forces.
"We have already formed a committee to identify the children for screening out," Defense Minister Kuol Manyang Juuk told Anadolu Agency on Friday.
"The committee is working with the Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA) and the different armed militias we have incorporated," he said.
Minister Juuk was, however, quick to deny that there were any children within the ranks of the SPLA.
"We don't have children within the SPLA ranks. People confuse the militias we have brought in with the SPLA," he added.
The militia groups are comprised of former rebel groups granted a general presidential amnesty last year, which led thousands to abandon an anti-government rebellion.
"It is within these armed groups that they [the children] are there," said Minister Juuk. "These forces are not yet fully SPLA. We are still in the process of incorporating them."
Head of the SPLA's child-protection unit, Brig. Gen. Chaplain Khamis, however, appeared to contradict the minister's assertions.
"So far, we have identified 254 children, of whom 167 are from the SPLA and the rest are from the other armed groups," he told reporters at a workshop held by the U.N. Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) to launch the demobilization process.
Khamis said the issue of child soldiers had been a priority since the signing of the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement.
"Now the time has come, because we don't want to continue to have a record on the list of the U.N. that the SPLA is committing crimes against children," he asserted.
"It is a recommitment of the SPLA to remain a child-free army," the official said.
"According to SPLA rules of recruitment, somebody below the age of 18 is a child and not fit to be in the army," he explained.
-Delayed modernization-
The defense minister, meanwhile, said that the country's ongoing conflict had derailed earlier plans to modernize the SPLA.
"We were planning to professionalize the army, but it has been impeded by the rebellion," Juuk told AA.
"We had plans to reorganize and train the SPLA; we needed to mobilize resources, but now there is no way," he lamented.
The minister, nonetheless, remains optimistic.
"We have not given up. The plans are still there for the future," Juuk said.
South Sudan has been shaken by violence since last December, when President Salva Kiir accused Riek Machar, his sacked vice president, of plotting to overthrow his regime. Hundreds of thousands of South Sudanese have since been displaced in fighting between the two rivals, leading to an increasingly dire humanitarian situation for large swathes of the population.
In recent months, the two camps have held on-again, off-again peace talks in Addis Ababa under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), an East African trade bloc based in Djibouti. Representatives of both sides are currently in the Ethiopian capital to discuss implementation of a June agreement to draw up a transitional government.

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