Hundreds of children in the Sahel were killed, maimed or forcibly separated from their parents last year, the United Nations said Tuesday, as a jihadist conflict rages across the region.
In Mali alone, 277 children were killed or maimed during the first nine months of 2019, the UN children's agency UNICEF said in a report, more than double the number in the year before.
Despite support from French and UN troops, Mali has been struggling to quell an Islamist insurgency that erupted in the north in 2012 and which has claimed thousands of military and civilian lives.
The conflict has since spread to the centre of the West African country, as well as neighbouring Sahel states Burkina Faso and Niger, inflaming ethnic tensions along the way.
The whole Sahel region has seen a "significant increase of violence against children who are caught in the cross fire," according to the report, which added that hundreds had been maimed or forcibly separated from their families.
Mali is the only country for which there are hard figures on the number of child war victims, a UNICEF spokeswoman said.
But nonetheless she said that children in Burkina Faso and Niger have also been murdered, sexually abused, kidnapped, or pressed into armed groups.
The spiralling conflict had also forced about 1.2 million to flee their homes as of November -- a two-fold increase on 2018 -- of whom more than half are children.
Some 4.9 million children need humanitarian aid, the report added.
"We cannot help but be struck by the scale of violence children are facing," said UNICEF's regional director for West and Central Africa Marie-Pierre Poirier, in a statement.
"Hundreds of thousands of them have lived through traumatising experiences".
But the impact of the conflict goes beyond violence.
Access to basic services such as food, water, medicine and education have also been "seriously compromised," the report said.
This year, the UN estimates that some 709,000 children under five will suffer from acute malnutrition across Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger, and some 4.8 million people could suffer from food insecurity.
With increasing militant attacks on schools, teachers and pupils, education has also taken a dire turn.
Between April 2017 and December 2019, school closures increased six-fold in the central Sahel region, the report said.
And more than eight million children between the ages of six and 14 -- about 55 percent of the children who fall within that bracket -- are not in school.
UNICEF called on militaries and militant groups to respect "humanitarian space," arguing that insecurity has made aid work more difficult and dangerous.
The agency is also appealing for $208 million. The report said that 59 percent of its humanitarian projects for children in Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger are underfunded.