JUBA: Thousands of children in war-torn in South Sudan have been deliberately killed or abducted to fight in the nearly eight month-long conflict, African Union experts said Friday.
"The present conflict can be characterized as nothing less than a war on the children of South Sudan," said Julia Sloth-Nielsen, heading the AU committee investigating child rights in the young nation.
Attacks were "perilously close to constituting a crime against humanity," she said.
"We have received numerous reports of children - even babies - being wantonly killed," Sloth-Nielsen told reporters, after a week of investigations by the 11-member African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child.
"It is not that these deaths are accidental or unfortunate by-products. We are reliably informed that children are being targeted, deliberately."
More than 900 children have been abducted in the eastern war zone state of Jonglei, while there are confirmed cases of "rape of both girls and boys," the committee said in a statement.
In one case in the eastern town of Bor, 490 children were found in mass graves after fighting.
Thousands of people have been killed and over 1.5 million have fled civil war in the world's youngest nation, where aid workers warn of famine within weeks if fighting continues.
"The situation is deteriorating as I speak," Sloth-Nielsen added.
Fighting broke out in December, sparked by a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his sacked deputy Riek Machar, with battles between government troops, mutinous soldiers and ragtag militia forces divided by tribe.
In an April attack in Bor when gunmen sprayed civilians sheltering in a U.N. peacekeeping base with bullets, 12 children were killed, including a baby just three months old.
U.N. human rights chief Navi Pillay said in April said that more than 9,000 children had been taken to fight.
Children were suffering more than even during the 1983-2005 war that paved the way for South Sudan's independence, the AU team said.
"The impact of conflict of the last eight months upon children is greater than in the entire 21 year period during which the war was ongoing," the committee said.