Sindhuli: Thousands of former child soldiers who fought for the Maoists in Nepal`s decade-long civil war will on Thursday begin leaving the UN-monitored camps where they have spent the past three years.
Around 250 young men and women are due to swap their blue People`s Liberation Army (PLA) uniforms for civilian clothes and begin their journey home after an official ceremony at the Sindhuli camp in central Nepal.
They are the first of almost 24,000 former Maoist fighters living in camps around the country to be officially discharged as part of the 2006 agreement, a key step forward in Nepal`s faltering peace process.
"After a lot of delays we are finally ready to discharge the disqualified Maoist combatants from the UN-monitored camps. It is a milestone for the country`s peace process," a spokesman for the Peace Ministry said.
"We hope it will pave the way for the crucial step of rehabilitating and reintegrating Maoist combatants."
The former fighters were confined to UN-supervised camps as part of the 2006 accord that followed the end of the conflict between Maoist guerrillas and the state.
In December 2007, the United Nations Mission in Nepal (UNMIN) completed a verification process and found that 2,973 were minors when the war ended and another 1,035 were not genuine combatants.
They had been slated for release soon afterwards, but the process was repeatedly delayed by disagreements between the Maoist party, now in opposition, and its political rivals.
Over the next month all 4,008 will leave the camps, a move PLA spokesman Chandra Prasad Khanal said would "send a message to the world that we are committed to peace."
"For us this is a sad moment because we are sending away our fellow fighters in the decade-long people`s war," he said. "But we are taking this step in order to bring the peace process to a logical conclusion."
Media access to the camps is restricted, but in a briefing organised by the PLA, one former child soldier expressed his regret at leaving the camp.
"I`m not happy to be leaving, I`m doing so because the party has told me I must," said 23-year-old Toyaraj Koirala, who joined the PLA aged 13.
"I`m leaving the PLA, but my involvement with the Maoist party will continue."
The discharge of the former child soldiers will allow the Maoists to be removed from a UN list of organisations that use children in conflict.
Rights groups say the former rebels forcibly recruited child soldiers during the conflict, sometimes demanding one person from every home in areas under their control, although some signed up voluntarily.
Many became cooks or porters or did medical work, but they also received military training.
The Maoists want the remaining 20,000 PLA members to be integrated into the regular army, a key tenet of the peace agreement.
But the military`s opposition to such a move has hampered progress, and last year a row between the then army chief Rukmangad Katawal and Maoist leader Pushpa Kamal Dahal over the issue brought down the Maoist-led government.
No one is even sure how many former fighters remain in the camps -- they are not being kept there by force and several thousand are believed to have walked out in the three years since the end of the war.
Those being officially discharged will receive a set of civilian clothes and identity papers, and each will be given 10,000 rupees (USD 135) to travel back to their villages and begin setting up home.
There, they will be given access to vocational training and education, while UN observers will monitor their progress amid concerns they could be lured into Nepal`s growing number of criminal gangs, many of which have political links.
"The release of these young people sends out a symbolic message for the new year," said Gillian Mellsop, Nepal representative of the United Nations Children`s Fund (UNICEF).
"Not only can these young people now finally get on with their lives, but this also marks a new beginning at the start of a new decade for Nepal, so that it can move forward to a more stable, peaceful future."