Children in central Democratic Republic of Congo are bearing the brunt of violence between the army and a local militia which has uprooted at least 1.4 million people over the past year, the U.N. children's agency (UNICEF) said on Friday.
Six in 10 of those forced to flee their homes in the conflict-ravaged Kasai region - about 850,000 - are children, leaving them prey to attack, detention, sexual violence, and recruitment by militia fighters, according to the U.N. agency.
More than 3,300 people have been killed in Kasai since the start of an insurrection in August by the Kamuina Nsapu militia, which wants the withdrawal of military forces from the area. Kasai is the scene of a growing humanitarian disaster in a nation where violence has spiraled since President Joseph Kabila refused to step down when his mandate ended in December.
"The crisis is having a devastating impact on children," UNICEF representative Tajudeen Oyewale said in a statement.
"The lives of hundreds of thousands of children and their families in Kasai have been turned upside down by this brutal violence."
About half of militia members are estimated to be children - many younger than 15 - and more than 500 have been deployed as fighters or used as human shields, the agency said.
Some 3.8 million Congolese are uprooted within the country, more than in any other African country, and about 7.3 million need aid urgently, according to U.N. data.