ABUJA   -  Nearly 900 children, including some as young as 13, have been freed by a pro-government militia fighting against Islamist Boko Haram insurgents, the UN children’s agency has said.

More than 1,700 children have now been released by Civilian Joint Task Force, a local militia thatworks closely with the military to fight Boko Haram and signed a commitment to end the recruitment and use of children in 2017.

Non-state armed groups embroiled in the decade-long conflict against Boko Haram recruited more than 3,500 children between 2013 and 2017 in Nigeria’s north-east, according to Unicef.

“[This] is a step in the right direction for the protection of children’s rights and must be recognised and encouraged,” said Unicef’s Nigeria chief, Mohamed Fall, following the children’s release on Friday.

 “Children of north-east Nigeria have borne the brunt of this conflict. They have been used by armed groups in combatant and non-combatant roles and witnessed death, killing and violence.” The UN’s annual report on children and armed conflict, released last year, found that 1,092 children, the majority of them boys (738), were recruited and used by armed groups in 2017. It described Boko Haram, which has been condemned for its use of children as suicide bombers, as the main perpetrator.

The 894 children, released at a ceremony in the north-eastern town of Maiduguri, were aged between 13 and 19. They were were recruited in 2017.

Children who had been separated from their families will be reunited from Saturday, said Kusali Nellie Kubwalo of Unicef Nigeria, adding that they will also be offered support to get education and training: “There’s an assessment to see what support can be given … whether they want to go back to school, so we can link them to the right school.”

Last October, 833 children were released by the Civilian Joint Task Force, whose commitment to end the recruitment of children was heralded as a landmark moment when the agreement was signed in September 2017, after a year of negotiations with the UN.

Nigeria’s war against two jihadist groups, Boko Haram and Islamic State west Africa province, which has left more than 30,000 people dead and displaced millions more, shows no signs of being resolved.

The Civilian Joint Task Force is formed largely from vigilante groups in response to the Boko Haram insurgency. Some credit the group with protecting communities in areas poorly guarded by the military, but it has also been accused of rape and human rights abuses by Human Rights Watch and other rights organisations.

Unicef’s work in north-east Nigeria has at times angered authorities. In December, the military briefly suspended the agency’s work amid allegations that Unicef staff spied on behalf of militants in the restive region.

The north-east of Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country and biggest energy producer, is rife with abuses on both sides of the conflict – from the recruitment of children to extrajudicial killings and rapes, according to human rights groups.