JUBA, South Sudan — The U.N. children's agency said on Saturday that hundreds of children were abducted two weeks ago by an armed group in South Sudan that is suspected to have ties with the country's military.
UNICEF had previously said about 89 boys, some as young as 13, were forcibly recruited by an armed group near the town of Malakal, the capital of Upper Nile state, in mid-February. The agency said the boys were taken while doing their exams, in a recruitment operation that appeared to target mostly adults in the area known as Wau Shilluk.
UNICEF said in a statement Saturday that it is now "confident that the armed group which took the children ... is aligned with" South Sudan's military. It said the group is led by Johnson Oloni, a general who once fought against the government but joined the national army in 2013.
Oloni now holds the rank of major general in the South Sudanese military after the integration of his militia, according to Brig. Malaak Ayuen, a South Sudanese military official in charge of information and public relations. Oloni had been summoned to Juba, the South Sudanese capital, by President Salva Kiir over the alleged abductions, he said.
South Sudan's government has condemned the abductions and said an investigation is under way.
A weekly situation report on humanitarian affairs in South Sudan released Friday night said "more than 1,000" men and children were pressed into armed service in the Wau Shilluk recruitment exercise.
The evidence they have gathered indicates the children are being prepared to be sent to Kaka, near the Upper Nile oil fields, said UNICEF's representative in South Sudan, Jonathan Veitch.
"We fear they are going from the classroom to the front line," he said.
Last year 12,000 children were used as soldiers by armed forces and groups across South Sudan, according UNICEF.
Watchdog groups have persistently accused South Sudan's warring factions of actively recruiting and using child soldiers. South Sudan's military and rebels are actively enlisting children despite promises to the contrary, according to Human Rights Watch.