Hundreds more child soldiers recruited in South Sudan: monitors

Child soldiers face many hurdles when they return to normal life, headed by stigma and lack of education and job skills (AFP Photo/CHARLES LOMODONG) (AFP)

Juba (AFP) - Warring forces in South Sudan have abducted as many as a thousand more child solders in the latest abuses in the 18-month long civil war, monitors said Thursday, amid fresh efforts to bring rivals back to talks.

Rebel troops carried out house-to-house searches snatching children as young as 13 in the battleground northern state of Upper Nile in two days in early June, monitors from East Africa's eight-country IGAD bloc said in their latest report.

It blamed notorious militia commander Johnson Olony, a rogue ex-government general with a track record for press ganging children to fight, who joined rebel forces in May.

Olony "carried out forcible recruitment of an estimated 500-1000 youths, many of whom were children aged between 13 and 17 years," the report said, adding the hundreds were taken "during house-to-house searches" in the northern villages of Kodok and Wau Shilluk.

"The youths were then taken to training camps," the report said.

The UN children's agency estimates there are at least 13,000 child soldiers fighting in the country, and said last week that fighters have carried out horrific crimes against children.

Recent attacks include castration, rape and tying children together before slitting their throats. Others were thrown into burning houses.

Civil war began in December 2013 when President Salva Kiir accused his former deputy Riek Machar of planning a coup, setting off a cycle of retaliatory killings across the country that has split the poverty-stricken, landlocked country along ethnic lines.

Two-thirds of the country's 12 million people need aid, according to the UN.

- 'Blatant disregard' for civilians -

The IGAD report also said government troops had deliberately fired on some 30,000 civilians sheltering in a UN peacekeeping base in Upper Nile's state capital Malakal in May.

"It was evident that it was deliberate and sustained," the report read, adding that there was "no evidence" opposition forces were in the area.

"It is clear that firing by government forces was carried out with blatant disregard for the safety of civilians," it added.

Over two dozen armed forces -- including government soldiers and allied militia backed by Ugandan soldiers on one side, and a range of rebel factions on the other -- have been battling it out for the last 18 months despite numerous ceasefire agreements.

IGAD warned that "military commanders at all levels are held accountable for the conduct of the forces under their command."

The European Union and United States placed asset freezes and travel bans last year on commanders from both sides, but the sanctions have made little if any impact on the worsening war.

Kiir has called proposed international sanctions "unproductive" and warned they would only "fan the flames" of war.

Peace talks led by IGAD have been going on in Ethiopia almost as long as the 18-month war. Kiir and Machar have inked seven ceasefires, all broken within days or even hours.

But Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta is pushing renewed efforts to kickstart talks, meeting in recent days with Machar. South Sudan Foreign Minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin has also travelled to meet Kenyatta, a ministry spokesman said.