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Mali Conflict: Children Recruited Into Armed Groups, U.N. Says

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MALI CONFLICT CHILDREN
A still from a video shows armed Islamists patrolling in the streets of Gao on June 27, 2012. (STR/AFP/GettyImages) | Getty Images

GENEVA — The level of violence against children and cases of cholera in northern Mali are rising at an alarming rate since the area was seized by al-Qaida-linked Islamist fighters and Tuareg rebels following a March coup, U.N. officials said Friday.

At least 175 boys between the ages of 12 and 18 have been recruited into armed groups, at least eight girls were sexually assaulted and two teenage boys were killed by land mines and unexploded ordnance since the end of March, the U.N. children's agency UNICEF reported.

UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado said school closures in Mali have affected 300,000 children, making them more vulnerable to violence and recruitment as child soldiers.

"These numbers are reason for alarm especially because they represent only a partial picture of the child protection context in the north – an area where access for humanitarian workers is limited," Mercado told reporters at the U.N.'s European headquarters in Geneva.

Jens Laerke, a spokesman for the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said hospital officials in the northern Mali city of Gao told U.N. officials on Thursday that they had 24 cases of cholera.

Cholera, a waterborne disease readily spread because of poor sanitation and crumbling infrastructure, is caused by bacteria found in contaminated water or food. It can kill people within hours through dehydration, but is easily treatable if caught in time.

Laerke said Friday that his agency is extremely concerned by the situation because international aid workers have only limited access to provide clean water and sanitation, increasing the potential the disease can spread quickly.