Gunmen are holding 55 children captured in raids on villages in Central African Republic, the United Nations said on Friday, weeks after attacks that local authorities blamed on Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army.
A team of UN investigators which visited the remote area around Obo in the country's southeast concluded that local authorities were powerless to protect the population from the fighters, who also still hold 50 abducted adults.
Some 300 armed men attacked the four villages between between Feb. 19 and March 10, abducting more than 150 people. They were tied with ropes at the hips and forced to carry away stolen food and supplies.
Local authorities said the fighters were from the Ugandan rebel group, which became notorious for abducting children to become sex slaves or child soldiers during its 21-year war.
Nearly 40 people have been released by the fighters, many of the women reporting they had been gang-raped. Over 50 adults remain in captivity and none of the 55 abducted children have been released, a U.N. spokeswoman said.
"We were unable to identify who the perpetrators were, partly because several armed groups with similar modus operandi are present in the area," said Elizabeth Byrs, of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affaires in Geneva.
"These acts of indiscriminate violence hitting innocent men women and children are extremely worrying and a grave violation of human rights," she said.
Uganda's government said last week that LRA leader Joseph Kony had moved at least some of his forces to Central African Republic, undermining hopes he will sign a peace deal with Kampala by a March 28 deadline.
An LRA spokesman has insisted Kony will sign, although the date might slip to early April.
In return for peace, Uganda will ask the International Criminal Court (ICC) to drop arrest warrants for Kony and two of his deputies.
Central African Republic's north has increasingly fallen prey to bandits and armed groups in recent years as President Francois Bozize's government has battled rebel factions and the spillover from the conflict in Sudan's Darfur region.
The recent attacks in the south, however, represent a spread of regional insecurity from a different source.
The LRA usually operates in northern Uganda, southern Sudan and northeast Democratic Republic of Congo, where Kony is believed to be hiding.
The United Nations estimates 1 million people in Central African Republic have been affected by conflict -- or roughly a third of the population -- of whom 100,000 fled into neighbouring countries and 197,000 are internally displaced.
A U.N. appeal for $96 million this year from the international community to tackle the rising insecurity has so far received only $39 million.
(Reporting by Daniel Flynn in Dakar and Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; editing by Alistair Thomson)