NAIROBI, Aug 27 (Reuters) – Forty-eight children abducted by shadowy Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) rebels in northern Uganda were flown home on Friday from neighbouring southern Sudan, the United Nations children’s charity said.
The LRA, led by self-proclaimed mystic Joseph Kony, has kidnapped tens of thousands of children during its 18-year-old insurgency, forcing them to serve the cult-like group as fighters, porters and sex slaves.
UNICEF said the 48 children should be sent straight to centres run by non-governmental organisations where they could receive medical care and then be reunited with their families.
The charity’s Uganda representative, Martin Mogwanja, said the continued targeting of children by the LRA rebels remained a cause of great distress.
“Any incident of abduction and physical or sexual abuse of children is unacceptable and must be condemned outright as breaches of the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which Uganda is a signatory,” he said in a statement.
The 48 children, reportedly including 12 under the age of eight, were flown from Juba to the northern Ugandan town of Gulu in an airlift organised by the government of Uganda and funded by the International Organisation for Migration, UNICEF said.
It was not immediately clear whether the children had escaped from the rebels or been rescued.
Some 1.6 million people have fled their homes in northern Uganda to escape clashes between the army and the LRA, which has staged repeated raids from bases in lawless southern Sudan.
The group, which most Ugandans say appears to have no clear political aims, is notorious for its brutality, routinely targeting unarmed civilians and mutilating its victims.
But Ugandan army chiefs say they are now close to winning the war following a raid on Kony’s suspected headquarters near Juba last month that killed at least 120 people.
Ugandan troops are allowed to attack the LRA in southern Sudan under a 2002 accord between Kampala and Khartoum.