Tue, Feb 06, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Conference searching for ways to free child soldiers

AP , PARIS

A child soldier walks through a market in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in October 2003. At the initiative of French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, Paris is hosting an international conference on children involved in armed forces and armed groups called ``Let US Free the Children of War.''

PHOTO: AFP

Representatives from about 50 countries will gather in Paris this week to search for ways to demobilize and rehabilitate the world's estimated 250,000 child soldiers.

It is believed that teenagers and children are still being recruited or coerced into serving in conflicts in a dozen countries, many of them in Africa.

Unlawful

"Children are being recruited into unlawfully participating in armed conflicts as soldiers, messengers, spies, porters, cooks or to provide sexual services," Ann Veneman, the head of the UN children's agency, UNICEF, said in a statement before the two-day conference, which began yesterday.

"This is taking place every day, violating children's rights and compromising their futures," she said.

The conference, sponsored by UNICEF and France's Foreign Ministry, is to focus on strategies to prevent the recruitment of children and help reintegrate former child soldiers into society.

It also aims to develop ways to help girls, who account for nearly 40 percent of recruits in certain armed groups and are particularly vulnerable to sexual abuses, conference organizers said.

"Children, for whom fighting is the only thing they know, for whom war is a normal way of life ... are lost to peace and development," French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said in the statement announcing the conference.

"They are small time bombs that threaten the stability and growth of their countries, not to mention neighboring countries and beyond," Douste-Blazy said.

Demobilization

An estimated 95,000 former child soldiers have taken part in recent demobilization programs in countries from Asia to Latin America, including Afghanistan, Colombia, Uganda, Somalia, Sri Lanka and Liberia.

Last week, the International Criminal Court in The Hague, Netherlands, ordered Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga to be tried for allegedly recruiting child soldiers and sending them to kill and be killed in a bloody tribal conflict. The court, set up in 2002, has expanded its definition of war crimes to include the drafting of children under age 15 into armed conflict.

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