Gunmen raid school in South Sudan, seize boys

Feb 23, 2015, 2:41 AM EST
Young boys, children soldiers sit on February 10, 2015 with their rifles at a ceremony of the child soldiers disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration in Pibor oversawn by UNICEF and partners. UNICEF and its partners have overseen the release of another 300 children from the Cobra Faction armed group of former rebels of David Yau Yau.
AFP/Getty Images

Armed groups raided a South Sudanese school and seized 89 children who were taking their exams, the United Nations said Saturday.

The abduction occurred near Malakal, CNN reports, where thousands of people have taken refuge following months of violence in the nation. Kidnappers gathered around a community and conducted house-to-house searches, according to the U.N. children's agency.

It said the victims included boys over age 12, who were taken away by force.

U.N. officials warned the abductors that they're violating international law. "The recruitment and use of children by armed forces destroys families and communities," said Jonathan Veitch, the UNICEF representative in South Sudan. "Children are exposed to incomprehensible levels of violence, they lose their families and their chance to go to school."

South Sudan has been embroiled in conflict since December 2013, when President Salva Kiir accused his fired deputy, Riek Machar, of trying to oust him through a coup. Since then, militia loyal to both have battled each others' forces. Violence has quickly spread, with reports of mass killings and starvation nationwide.

Talks and repeated pleas for peace have yielded no results. More than 1.5 million people have been displaced, according to the U.N., and thousands killed. Some civilians have fled to U.N. bases in the country, making the facilities targets for armed militants.

South Sudan seceded from Sudan in 2011 after decades of war, making it the world's youngest nation.

Earlier this month. Human Rights Watch accused both government and rebel forces of actively recruiting child soldiers despite national laws banning it, reports The Guardian. Daniel Bekele, the group’s Africa director, said: “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.

In Malakal, government forces are even taking children from right outside the U.N. compound.” The government insisted it was doing everything possible to halt such abuses. Col Philip Aguer, a South Sudanese military spokesman, said: “We are taking all necessary measures to prevent grave violations against the children of our country. We firmly believe that nothing will strengthen our country more than our children being at school.”

Human Rights Watch named one of the culprits as Johnson Olony, a warlord aligned with the government who controls the area where the 89 boys were kidnapped.