Armed soldiers abducted at least 89 boys Saturday from a school in South Sudan, the UN agency for children reported.
The boys were kidnapped while taking their exams in a village near Malakal, the capital of the oil-rich Upper Nile state, UNICEF said in a statement.
No group has claimed responsibility for the mass abduction, and the kidnappers have only been identified thus far as "armed soldiers." Witnesses told UNICEF that the soldiers surrounded the community of Wau Shilluk and searched houses one by one, forcibly taking away boys older than 12. The actual number of missing boys could be much higher than 89, UNICEF said.
Jonathan Veitch, UNICEF's representative in South Sudan, condemned the kidnapping and expressed fear that the boys would be used as child soldiers.
"The recruitment and use of children by armed forces destroys families and communities," Veitch said. "Children are exposed to incomprehensible levels of violence, they lose their families and their chance to go to school."
The use of child soldiers is widespread in South Sudan's conflict, despite persistent attempts by humanitarian groups to stop the practice.
According to UNICEF, various armed groups in the country — including the South Sudanese military — have recruited about 9,000 children since fighting began.
Human Rights Watch condemned the recruitment and use of child soldiers by the South Sudanese government, especially in Malakal, just last week.
"Despite renewed promises by both government and opposition forces that they will stop using child soldiers, both sides continue to recruit and use children in combat," Daniel Bekele, Africa director at HRW, said in a statement Monday.
"In Malakal, government forces are even taking children from right outside the United Nations compound," Bekele said, describing almost exactly the incident that UNICEF reported Saturday.
The conflict in South Sudan has been ongoing since December of last year when fighting erupted between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and those aligned with his former deputy, Riek Machar.
On Wednesday, a military leader for the Macher-led opposition defected and announced the formation of a new group called the South Sudan Resistance Movement and Army.
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