Sun, Jun 27, 2004 - Page 5 News List

Sri Lanka's Tigers recruiting more children, UN says

REUTERS , COLOMBO

Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels have stepped up recruitment of child soldiers months after the release of hundreds of young recruits, UNICEF said yesterday.

UNICEF said they had about 160 reports of fresh recruits since the start of April, nearly one-third of which were in the eastern district of Batticaloa, the stronghold of a renegade rebel commander known by his nom de guerre, Karuna.

Karuna broke from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) in early March and although the Tigers retook the area under his control a month later, Batticaloa has remained the center of sporadic clashes and assassinations thought to be related to the split.

The LTTE formally freed nearly 300 child soldiers in April and another 750 are thought to have returned to their villages on their own.

"The April returns were a big step forward for the LTTE. However, this has been completely undermined by continued recruitment of new children," UNICEF resident head Ted Chaiban said in a statement.

The release of child soldiers -- who were thought to comprise as much as 20 percent of the rebels' fighting force -- is seen as a test of their commitment to efforts to end the separatist war that began in 1983. But recruitment has continued despite a two-year truce.

The Tigers and UNICEF embarked on a US$14 million plan last year to help children in the north and east -- the center of the rebels' fight for a Tamil state -- but Chaiban said they were not living up to their commitments under the program.

He said the Tigers' recruitment pamphlets and announcements failed to make clear that anyone under 18 would not be accepted, despite repeated requests from UNICEF to make the clarification.

"None of these steps have been taken. These are easy things the LTTE could be doing to show the world they take the issue of child recruitment seriously," Chaiban said.

The Tigers have admitted using underage fighters in the past but say the children joined voluntarily and that in some cases it is impossible to know their real age.

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