Juba (AFP) - South Sudan's army on Tuesday ordered a rogue general the United Nations says has abducted perhaps hundreds of child soldiers to return to headquarters for questioning.
Last month the UN children's agency UNICEF confirmed 89 children were seized as they took exams by soldiers loyal to Major-General Johnson Olony, who commands an ethnic Shilluk militia in the northern Upper Nile state.
On Saturday, UNICEF said it "believes the number of children may be in the hundreds," warning that they feared the youngsters abducted were "going from the classroom to the front line."
Olony has "been ordered to report to SPLA (army) headquarters for a briefing on the matter," army spokesman Philip Aguer said in a statement Tuesday. "We firmly believe that our army must be strong and disciplined and our children need to be healthy and educated."
South Sudan plunged into violence in December 2013 when fighting erupted between forces loyal to President Salva Kiir and rebels led by his rival, former vice president Riek Machar.
The president's spokesman Ateny Wek Ateny has condemned the kidnapping, calling Olony the "equivalent to the Boko Haram of South Sudan," referring to the Islamist extremist group behind an insurgency in northern Nigeria that has abducted boys and girls.
Witnesses said that unidentified armed soldiers surrounded the community and went house-to-house taking away by force any boys thought to be over 12 years old.
There was no immediate response from Olony, a former rebel who accepted an amnesty and joined the army in 2013.
Tens of thousands of people have died in the conflict, 1.5 million have been displaced and 2.5 million are in dire need of food aid in South Sudan, which declared independence from Sudan in 2011.
UNICEF estimates there are at least 12,000 children used by both sides in South Sudan's ongoing civil war
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 14 months despite numerous ceasefire agreements.
Rival leaders are due to meet this week in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa for the latest round of peace talks, amid repeated sanctions threats if they fail to meet a Thursday deadline to strike a deal.