Hundreds of children have been abducted and forced to kill by a Ugandan rebel group in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo, a rights group claims.
The notorious Lord's Resistance Army has seized more than 697 adults and children over the last 18 months in the Central African Republic and the Bas Uele region of northern Democratic Republic of Congo, says Human Rights Watch.
About a third of the villagers abducted were children, who are being forced to serve as soldiers or sex slaves, Human Rights Watch said in a report out today.
"The LRA continues its horrific campaign to replenish its ranks by brutally tearing children from their villages and forcing them to fight," said Anneke van Woudenberg, senior Africa researcher at HRW. "The evidence points to Joseph Kony, the LRA leader, as the author of this atrocious campaign.”
The child soldiers and other group members have killed about 250 people and as many as 74 000 have fled their homes over the past 18 months, according to Human Rights Watch research.
Some of the villagers who were abducted managed to escape, coming back with tales of children forced to kill other children and trained to treat other human beings as animals.
Girls are being used for sex or as servants, the report says. Refusing sex is often punished by death.
To escape the violence, 54,000 villagers have fled from their homes in the Bas Uele region of northern Congo.
The rebel group, which fled to the jungles of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2005 after its rebellion in northern Uganda was crushed, is well-known for using forced recruitment. Kony is being hunted by Ugandan special forces and he, along with other LRA leaders are subject to International Criminal Court arrest warrants for war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Ugandan and Congolese forces failed to flush out the guerrillas during an army operation that started in December 2008. The group now moves between the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and Southern Sudan.
Human Rights Watch has called on Uganda, national governments and the United Nations − which has a large peacekeeping presence in the Democratic Republic of Congo − to do more to protect people and bring the LRA leaders to justice to end their violence.
The research was carried out over a month, during which Human Rights Watch interviewed hundreds of people, including 90 people who escaped from the LRA.