Kinshasa - Schools and school-children are at risk in the unrelenting fighting plaguing eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and need increased government protection, Human Rights Watch said on Wednesday.
Urging the government to strengthen protection of schools and students in the restive east, the rights groups issued a 58-page report on "how armed groups have attacked schools and recruited children at school or while on their way to school".
It said "armed groups and the Congolese army have also taken over schools for military purposes", leading many families to keep children at home rather than face danger in the classroom.
"Children's access to education is more often a fight than a right in many parts of Congo," said HRW.
"Keeping students safely in school should be at the heart of efforts to build durable peace in Congo."
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The group said attacks on schools and their use for military purposes by fighters rose sharply in early 2012, when the Congolese army opened a military campaign against the M23 rebel group in eastern Congo.
Though that group was defeated in November 2013, hostilities have continued in the east with many other armed groups operating there, some of them converting schools into military bases, the rights group said.
Asked by AFP for comment, government spokesperson Lambert Mende slammed HRW's "meddling".
"It's not up to these NGOs to tell a government what to do or what not to do," he said.
Eastern DRC has been mired for two decades in ethnically-charged wars, as rebels battle for control of its rich mineral resources and neighbouring nations battle for regional power.
The unrest spiralled to encompass armies from at least six African nations, claiming an estimated three million lives in one of the world's deadliest recent conflicts.