Sat, Feb 19, 2005 - Page 9 News List

UN body warns Uganda is using child soldiers

UNICEF warned that children who had escaped or were rescued from the Lord's Resistance Army are now being forced to fight on the side of the government

DPA , KAMPALA

The UN children's agency UNICEF and church leaders are concerned that Ugandan children are being recruited into the military in the northern region where an ongoing insurgency has displaced over one and a half million people.

Military officials deny that children are deliberately recruited into the government forces but concede that juveniles may find themselves combatants due to mistakes such as failing to ascertain the actual ages of recruits.

UNICEF says that members of an estimated 800-strong army battalion formed last year, consisting of individuals who escaped from the Lords Resistance Army (LRA) guerillas, are children.

The UN body says it is concerned that the drafting of children into the military is going on despite warnings to the Ugandan authorities.

"Underage recruitment of children in the UPDF [Ugandan army] has been going on and it has been a concern. When [UNICEF executive director Carol] Bellamy visited Uganda last year, this was the concern she raised to army officers," UNICEF spokesman in Kampala, Hyun Chulho, said in an interview.

"Last year, there were a number of individuals who underwent training when they were underage. They were taken for training when they were young and recruited when they were of age. Any affiliation of children to the military is a concern and we believe it brings additional suffering," he said.

Government forces have been battling an 18-year rebellion mounted by the LRA who have abducted over 20,000 people, mostly children and youths, for forced recruitment. Abducted girls have been turned into sex slaves.

The Ugandan army last year formed what is called the 105th battalion, consisting mostly of individuals who had escaped or were rescued from the LRA, with the aim of fighting the rebels.

A senior Anglican Church cleric in the war-battered region, Bishop McLeod Ochola, told reporters on Wednesday that "there still exists the problem of children in the military."

"Government has a special interest in children being in the army. Children coming from captivity are a target. Government should understand that these children are coming from a critical situation and should be given a chance to recover from what they went through in the bush. Government has no resettlement program. Government is recruiting them into the forces," the outspoken cleric said.

Army officials deny that the members of the battalion of former LRA fighters are children but accept that child soldiers may exist in other units by mistake.

"We do not recruit children into the army. We do not recruit children who surrender. We have no child soldiers in the 105th battalion. But you cannot establish the ages of most of these soldiers in the army, whether they are 18 or 17. You cannot tell the ages of people by simply looking at them. Most people have no birth certificates," army spokesman Major Shaban Bantariza said.

Bantariza said the army does not possess a clear mechanism to verify the ages of candidates brought forward by their parents or those who voluntarily come to join the army.

Figures could not be obtained for the number of children said to be under enlistment in the East African nation's estimated 40,000 to 50,000-strong military, half of which is estimated to be deployed in the northern region.

"Being a child is not a permanent status. When people talk of children being abducted, they do not consider that these children grow up with time and may have been adults by the time they joined the regular army," he said.

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