Darfur rebels JEM to sign child protection deal with UN

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Sudanese rebel group JEM is to sign a landmark deal with the United Nations this week on the protection of children caught up in the Darfur conflict, mediators said Monday.

"As part of the agreement, the JEM (Justice and Equality Movement) commit to taking all steps necessary to ensure the protection of children in Darfur," said the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue, which brokered the agreement.

"UNICEF will have unimpeded access to all JEM locations to verify compliance with the agreement and the JEM will promise to designate a senior official as the focal point overseeing the agreement's implementation," it added.

UNICEF director for Sudan Nils Kastberg will attend the signing ceremony in Geneva on Wednesday, while the JEM delegation will be led by the group's humanitarian coordinator Suleiman Jamous and spokesman Ahmed Hussein.

Kastberg hailed the move as a "valuable precedent which we hope all parties to the Darfur conflict will follow."

Dennis McNamara, the mediator of the deal, also described it as a "very valuable precedent."

"Certainly (other groups) will be aware of it and they will presumably look at themselves and think whether they should not do something similar and we hope that is the case," the humanitarian adviser at the centre told AFP.

Among key issues surrounding children in Darfur is the use of child soldiers, with all parties of the conflict having been accused of recruiting minors for combat.

UNICEF estimated late-2008 that there were around 6,000 child soldiers in Darfur alone, with the youngest just 11 years of age, while most were aged between 15 and 17.

Anyone under 18 is considered a child under international and Sudanese law. However, in many tribal cultures, they are viewed as adults after puberty.

McNamara noted that under the deal, if UN officials were to "find children in military areas, or in conflict areas, they will arrange for them to be removed."

Meanwhile, JEM spokesman Hussein told AFP that "there are no child soldiers in JEM" and that the agreement went beyond the issue of children in conflict to the welfare of children such as education.

"The signing of this agreement does not mean that JEM has recruited child soldiers. This is not true.

"We are taking this as an initiative of goodwill, we want to lead and set an example," said Hussein.

© 2010 AFP

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