21/04/2017 23:08 BST | Updated 21/04/2017 23:10 BST

More Than 1.5 Million Children Are At Risk Of 'Horrific Abuse' In Central Congo

The United Nations says hundreds of thousands of boys and girls have been forced to flee their homes in the greater Kasaï region.

Just weeks ago, the remains of two U.N. researchers, Michael Sharp and Zaida Catalan, and their Congolese interpreter, Betu Tshintela, were found in Kasaï-Central province. They had been investigating widespread allegations of human rights abuses by the Congolese army and local militia groups. The government of Congo blamed their deaths on the Kamwina Nsapu militia.

On Wednesday, the U.N. confirmed the discovery of 17 new mass grave sites in Kasaï, bringing the regional total to 40. U.N. investigators have accused the Congolese military of digging some of the graves after killing more than 100 people while fighting the Kamwina Nsapu militia last month. Dozens of children were among the dead.

Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the U.N.'s high commissioner for human rights, called on the government of Congo to conduct an independent, transparent investigation.

"The discovery of yet more mass graves and the reports of continued violations and abuses highlight the horror that has been unfolding in the Kasaïs over the last nine months," Al Hussein said. "Should there be no effective national investigation, I will not hesitate to urge the international community to support an investigation by an international mechanism."

UNICEF is calling for $20.6 million to address the crisis. Oyewale said immediate aid is essential to prevent further deterioration in the Kasaïs.

"We've been able to mobilize some initial funding, but we're working to upscale [our efforts] quickly," he said. "Children cannot wait."