UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- Yemen's Houthi rebels have agreed to rid their ranks of child soldiers, who have fought by the thousands during the country's seven years of civil war, the United Nations said Monday.
The Houthis signed what the U.N. described as an "action plan" to end and prevent recruiting or using children in armed conflict, killing or maiming children and attacking schools and hospitals. U.N. spokesperson Stephane Dujarric said the rebels committed to identifying children in their ranks and releasing them within six months.
One of the Houthis top diplomats, Abdul Eluh Hajar, signed the agreement. Representatives from the U.N.'s children's agency posed with Houthi officials for the media at a ceremony to mark the agreement in Yemen's capital, Sanaa. The Houthis called it a plan to protect children.
Yemen's internationally recognized government, which is operating in exile, made similar commitments in several documents signed since 2014, the U.N. said.
Virginia Gamba, the U.N.'s top official looking out for children in war zones, called the Houthis' move "a positive and encouraging step," but she noted that "the most difficult part of the journey starts now."
"The action plan must be fully implemented and lead to tangible actions for the improvement of the protection of children in Yemen," Gamba, who signed in New York as a witness to the Houthis' commitment, said in a statement.
The U.N. says nearly 3,500 children have been verified as recruited and deployed in Yemen's civil war. However, a senior Houthi military official told The Associated Press in 2018 that the group had inducted 18,000 child soldiers into its army by then, and former child soldiers told the news cooperative that boys as young as 10 were recruited. At the time, a Houthi military spokesman denied any systematic recruiting of people under 18 and said there were orders to reject children who tried to join up.
More than 10,200 children have been killed or maimed in the war, the U.N. says. It's unclear how many may have been combatants.
Yemen's civil war erupted in 2014 when the Iran-backed Houthis seized Sanaa and forced the government into exile. A Saudi-led coalition, including the United Arab Emirates, entered the war in early 2015 to try to restore the government to power.
War monitors estimate the conflict has killed over 14,500 civilians and 150,000 people when combatants are included. The fighting also created one of the world's worst humanitarian crises.
The warring sides agreed earlier this month to the first nationwide truce in six years. The two-month pact was timed to start during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and raised hopes about building momentum for peace.
Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi stepped aside last week and said a new presidential council would run the exiled government and lead negotiations with the Houthis.
Saudi Arabia and a number of other countries welcomed the leadership change after years of infighting among anti-Houthi factions. A Houthi spokesperson dismissed the development as an "illegitimate" decision made from afar.