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Thousands of children killed in Syria, UN study says

Thousands of children have been killed in the Syria uprising since March 2011, according to a new global UN report on children and armed conflict.

Calling the toll "unbearable", the study said government forces and rebels were using boys and girls as "suicide bombers or human shields".

In total the study covered 21 countries where children are victims of violence.

For the first time Mali was added to the "shame list", which names armed parties who recruit and abuse children.

This year, the list includes 55 armed forces and groups from 14 countries, including new parties in the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

'Heaviest toll'

In Mali, children make up more than half of the 15.8 million population, and many have been "severely affected" by the ongoing conflict in the northern part of the country, the UN report says.

"The serious deterioration of the security situation in Mali in 2012 was characterised by a large number of grave violations against children by various armed groups," according to the study.

In addition to enlisting hundreds of boys mainly aged 12 to 15, armed groups are also alleged to have carried out "widespread and systematic" sexual violence against girls since January 2012.

There were also dozens of reports of children being killed or maimed by weapons, mines and air strikes during the French and Malian military campaign launched in January 2013 to fight the Islamist militants in the north.

However, children in Syria were suffering "maybe the heaviest toll" in the world, said UN special representative Leila Zerrougui, who presented the findings.

"They are killed, they are maimed, they are recruited, they are detained, they are tortured", she told journalists in New York.

The report accused Syrian troops of torturing children suspected of having links to rebel groups.

But it said armed opposition groups, including the Free Syrian Army, were also using children, both in combat and in support roles such as transporting supplies and loading cartridges.

More than 80,000 people are thought to have died in the Syrian conflict, and some two million children are in need of assistance, according to official estimates.

However, the UN report also noted that thousands of children had been released worldwide by armed groups in 2012, and that Nepal and Sri Lanka had been taken off the shame list.

It added that action plans to end the recruitment of child soldiers had been launched with government forces and armed groups in South Sudan, Myanmar, the DRC and Somalia.