updated 10/1/2008 4:46:14 PM ET 2008-10-01T20:46:14

The United Nations on Wednesday urged rebels from the Lord's Resistance Army to free 90 school children abducted two weeks ago in eastern Congo.

The U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, and the U.N. special representative for children in armed conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, reminded the rebels that the abduction and use of children in armed groups is a war crime and crime against humanity.

UNICEF and the U.N. special representative called in a joint statement "for the immediate and unconditional release of all of the abducted children, who were taken during simultaneous attacks on the Kiliwa, Duru, and Nambia villages in Orientale Province on Sept. 17."

They blamed the Lord's Resistance Army for abducting the 90 children from their schools in the villages.

UNICEF said last week that three civilians were killed in the attacks, and a village chief and two Italian missionaries were abducted. The attackers also torched Kiliwa so thoroughly that only the health center was left standing in the village, it said.

The rebel Lord's Resistance Army has been waging one of Africa's longest and most brutal rebellions, drawing in the volatile region comprised of northern Uganda, eastern Congo and southern Sudan.

Formed more than 20 years ago, it has become notorious for raping children and using them as soldiers. The group's elusive leader, Joseph Kony, believed to be hiding in eastern Congo, and other top members are wanted by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

In their statement, UNICEF and the special representative said: "There are documented cases where children kidnapped by groups in this region have been forced to fight as child soldiers, and where young girls have been raped and used as sex slaves."

After years of fighting between warring militias, eastern Congo had appeared on the road to peace following a deal signed in January by the government and a host of rebel groups.

However, the area has seen renewed fighting since late August.

At least 100,000 people have been forced to flee their homes.

According to UNICEF and the U.N. special representative, the attacks on Kiliwa, Duru and Nambia caused much of their population to flee and humanitarian workers to respond to a new wave of displacements.

The Congolese fighters are loyal to an eastern warlord named Laurent Nkunda, who commanded rebels backed by neighboring Rwanda during Congo's 1998-2002 war that extended into half a dozen nations. After the broader war ended, Nkunda launched a low-level rebellion, claiming Congo's transition to democracy had excluded the country's minority Tutsi ethnic group.

Congo held its first democratic elections in more than four decades in 2006, but the new government has struggled to assert its control of the vast country, particularly in the east.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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