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Child soldiers still recruited 10 years after pact

By Nick Tattersall

February 05, 2007

DAKAR, Feb 5 (Reuters) - Child soldiers are still being recruited in at least 13 countries from Afghanistan to Uganda, 10 years after international guidelines were agreed to eradicate their use, a British-based charity said on Monday.

Save the Children said hundreds of thousands of under-age soldiers were being forced to fight around the world despite guidelines laid down in the Cape Town Principles agreed in 1997, which established 18 as the minimum age for recruitment.

"The situation is still dire. Hundreds of thousands of children are still living in misery due to association with armed groups and forces," Save the Children said in a statement.

"Child soldiers are subjected to brutal intimidation, often forced to commit atrocities as military 'training', and then used on the frontline," it said.

Many of those forced to fight were in Africa, held by rebel groups such as the Lord's Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda -- infamous for abducting thousands of children -- or by militia groups including those wreaking havoc in eastern Congo.

Child soldiers were often abducted in their villages and began their fighting careers as forced labourers, carrying out looting raids and transporting the booty to their seniors, before being forced to kill.

"If you did not do it they would kill you. That was the first killing I saw. That made me silent and made me obey orders," said one former child soldier, Abubakar, who was forced to fight by rebels in Sierra Leone's 1991-2002 civil war.

"Then they taught us to fight. That was my first time to cock an AK47 and fire it. It was just some hours of training ... but we did not do it with a willing heart," Abubakar, who said he killed for the first time aged 13, told Reuters. He declined to have his surname published.

Hard to Forget

Save the Children said fighting forces were recruiting child soldiers in Afghanistan, Burundi, Chad, Colombia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda.

The U.N. children's agency UNICEF said in a mid-2003 report around 8,000 child soldiers in Afghanistan had been informally demobilised but not fully reintegrated into society. Rights campaigners have warned repeatedly since then that children risk re-recruitment by non-state armed groups such as the Taliban.

The Cape Town Principles were agreed at a symposium in South Africa organised with UNICEF to recommend action by governments.

Representatives from nearly 60 countries met in France on Monday to update these principles in a document called the Paris Commitments, aimed at boosting efforts to halt the use of children in war and do more to help reintegrate child soldiers.

"More than a revolting reality, more than a war crime, it is a time bomb that threatens stability and economic growth in Africa and beyond," French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy told Le Figaro daily on Monday.

Save the Children said 10,000 children associated with the LRA were still unaccounted for in Uganda while in Sri Lanka at least 5,000 had been recruited since 2001 and parents were afraid to let their children out for fear of abduction.

Children as young as eight had been recruited by government forces in southern Sudan, while over 8,000 were still being used in rebel and militia groups in West Africa.

"Some people are under the mistaken belief that children volunteer. Most of the time it is poverty that forces them to join up. Others are abducted by force," said Pernille Ironside, a UNICEF child protection officer based in Goma, eastern Congo.

"Girls are hardest to find. They are hidden. They become the wives or sex slaves of fighters," Ironside told Reuters, adding 4,000 children still needed to be demobilised in the region.

Although peace deals have nominally ended many of the African wars notorious for using child soldiers -- such as Sierra Leone and Liberia -- those released are often rejected by society and struggle to come to terms with their violent past.

"I want to join civilian life because I am getting old ... But I'm used to this soldier life. There's nothing else to do," said Abubakar, now in his late 20s, who joined Sierra Leone's army and was trained by the British when the war ended.

"They say once a soldier, always a soldier."

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