By Emma Farge
GENEVA (Reuters) - Forced recruitment of child soldiers is increasing in South Sudan despite a peace deal last year, the head of a United Nations investigating body said on Monday, adding that a return to full-blown conflict remained a possibility.
Some of the country's thousands of child soldiers were released after the 2018 accord, but the chair of the Commission on Human Rights in South Sudan said that investigators have recently observed a reversal as both government and rebel groups seek to swell their numbers.
"Ironically, the prospect of a peace deal has accelerated the forced recruitment of children, with various groups now seeking to boost their numbers before they move into the cantonment sites," panel chair Yasmin Sooka, who visited the country in late August, told the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Sooka later told Reuters in Geneva: "What our investigators have picked up is that in many of the hotspots you are actually seeing an increase in child soldiers."
Some of them were girls providing sexual and labor services to the fighters, she added.
South Sudan split away from Sudan in 2011 after decades of war but plunged into its own conflict at the end of 2013.
Both sides agreed in September 2018 to end a civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of people and to form a national army. Implementation has so far been slow but, in a possible sign of progress, President Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar met last week and agreed to form a transitional government by the middle of November.
Paradoxically, Sooka said the prospect of the creation of a new army for the oil-rich state out of the rival forces could be spurring recruitment of children, as young fighters looked for handouts.
"Once the selection process takes place for the unified army the remaining ones who are not selected will be demobilized through the DDR (Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration) process and so the incentives of being able to access a DDR package may be an incentive to swell the numbers," she said in the interview.
Sooka said she remained concerned about a possible revival of the broader conflict because of the number of localized flare-ups, often involving tit-for-tat cattle raids driven by ethnic tensions.
"I think in a country where the state doesn't have control of vast parts of the region if this thing (localized violence)doesn't go down...you have the potential to see fighting breaking out in so many parts of the country," she said.
A map published by the panel showed more than 30 local incidents so far this year, mostly in the central Jur River region.
South Sudan Ambassador Akech Chol Ahou Ayok, in a statement to the rights forum, said that his government was committed to the peace process and that the meeting between opposing sides was evidence of "positive steps in the right direction".
He did not respond to the specific allegation of child soldiers raised by the U.N. team.
(Reporting by Emma Farge; Editing by Stephanie Nebehay and Alex Richardson)