JUBA, Sudan (AP) -- The government of Southern Sudan said Monday it will purge child soldiers from the ranks of its former rebel army by year's end, a policy change that could see thousands of young troops pushed out of the military.
The Sudan People's Liberation Army launched a new "Child Protection Department" intended to help the army fulfill an agreement it signed with the United Nations in November. The agreement commits the army to release all children in its ranks by the end of the year and to end the use of child soldiers across Southern Sudan.
The U.N. Children's Fund estimates that about 900 children serve as soldiers in the south. The southern military did not say how many child soldiers it believes it has, but the chief of staff indicated it was several thousand.
Oil-rich Southern Sudan is widely expected to vote for independence from northern Sudan in a scheduled January referendum, an outcome likely to lead to the breakup of Africa's largest country.
The 2005 peace accord that ended decades of war between Sudan's north and south committed the armies to an extensive demobilization process. But because both armies are preparing for worst-case scenarios as the southern vote nears, analysts say neither side has an interest in reducing the size of their militaries.
Still, southern officials say they will completely purge the ranks of children. William Deng Deng, chairman of the south's Disarmament, Demobilization and Reintegration Commission, said the army has "never wavered in its commitment to children," recalling how children recruited into the guerrilla army during the civil war received schooling along with their military training.
"I want to confirm that the generals are doing what they can to make sure that the SPLA by the end of this year is child-free," said Deng. "Any child that comes back is a child who came back from the village because we couldn't offer them anything to do."
Deng said that responsibility lies with the government to provide schooling and other services for demobilized children, but he was firm that the army would never again recruit children.
"This army doesn't lack manpower. If they wanted they could call millions now. But not children," he said.
Southern Sudan is one of the poorest places in the world. More than half of the population requires food assistance to survive. The southern government is likely a long way off from providing its people with alternatives to life in the army.
"All of us here we were born in war," said southern army Chief of Staff Gen. James Hoth Mai. "And we don't want to pass on this war again to our children. We are very committed to develop our children."
Mai said that providing schooling and other services to demobilized children is "a huge task."
"We are talking about thousands and thousands of children," he said.
The U.N.'s top humanitarian official in Southern Sudan said the task of transforming a rebel movement into a professional army is "a long road."
"The way in which a country's army operates is a reflection of the country itself," said Lise Grande. She added that the "the entire world community is looking at Southern Sudan" in the run-up to the referendum.