The UN mission in South Sudan - headed by former Labour leader David Shearer - has released more than 300 former child soldiers in the city of Yambio yesterday.

"Children should not be carrying guns and killing each other. They should be playing, learning, having fun with friends, protected and cherished by the adults around them," Shearer said.

A total of 700 children, including 220 girls, have been screened and registered for release in phases - 563 from the South Sudan National Liberation Movement and 137 associated with the Sudan People's Liberation Army In-Opposition.

The first phase of the release project involved 311 young people and was marked at a ceremony in Yambio yesterday. They were officially disarmed and provided with civilian clothes as well as medical screenings.

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Eighty seven of them were girls.

"This is the first time so many young women have been involved in a release like this in South Sudan," Shearer said.

"They will have endured suffering, including sexual abuse. It is vital that they receive the support they need to rejoin their communities and that they are welcomed home by family and friends without any sense of stigma."

Former child soldiers attend a release ceremony in Yambio, South Sudan, on Wednesday where they laid down their weapons and traded in their uniforms to return to
Former child soldiers attend a release ceremony in Yambio, South Sudan, on Wednesday where they laid down their weapons and traded in their uniforms to return to "normal life". Photo / AP

The children will have counselling support as part of the reintegration programme.

The Shearer-led UN mission has been leading the project to release the children for more than six months, including providing peacekeeping troops to escort religious leaders into remote bush areas to make contact and negotiate with the armed groups.

It has also worked closely with other key partners such as Unicef, state and local authorities and community groups.

Shearer paid tribute to these groups.

"I would like to pay particular credit to religious leaders who travelled into conflict zones and risked their own lives to bring these children to safety."

Guns that belonged to child soldiers lie on the ground at the release ceremony in Yambio, the second-largest such release since the country's civil war began five years ago. Photo / AP
Guns that belonged to child soldiers lie on the ground at the release ceremony in Yambio, the second-largest such release since the country's civil war began five years ago. Photo / AP

The children with relatives in area will be reunited with their families, while others will be placed in interim care centres until their families can be traced.

They will also be provided with three months' worth of food assistance and with vocational training and age-specific education services in schools and accelerated learning centres.

Shearer said that the challenge ahead is to ensure the young people have the support they need to undertake training, find jobs, and access the opportunities they deserve to reach their full potential.

In spite of the release, some 19,000 children continue to be used by armed forces and groups more than four years after conflict erupted in December 2013. ‚Äč

Former child soldiers stand in line, waiting to be registered with Unicef. More than 300 child soldiers were released by armed groups in South Sudan on Wednesday. Photo / AP
Former child soldiers stand in line, waiting to be registered with Unicef. More than 300 child soldiers were released by armed groups in South Sudan on Wednesday. Photo / AP