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UN: Tamil Tigers Continue to Recruit Child Soldiers - 2004-01-22

The U.N. children's agency says Tamil rebels are continuing to recruit child soldiers in Sri Lanka, despite a halt in the country's civil war. UNICEF is appealing for their release.

A UNICEF report released in Colombo says Tamil Tiger rebels recruited 709 underage fighters last year despite promises not to enlist anyone below 18 years of age.

UNICEF's representative in Colombo, Ted Chaiban, has called on the Tamil rebels - also known as the LTTE, to honor their pledge.

"New recruitment must stop and there needs to be an accelerated release of children currently with the LTTE," he said.

The report says Tamil rebels released 202 child fighters last year.

The average age of children enlisted as fighters was 15, but the youngest recruit was only 10-years-old.

The Tigers have admitted using child combatants in the past. But they deny doing so since they signed a truce with the government two-years ago, halting two decades of fighting. They say underage children come to them to flee poverty or abuse at the hands of government forces.

According to U.N. estimates, more than 40 rebel groups worldwide rely on underage fighters.

UNICEF also is calling for greater international involvement in helping children in war-ravaged areas in Sri Lanka's north and east.

Mr. Chaiban says virtually every child in that area has been affected by the conflict, and needs rehabilitation programs.

"Our estimate is that there are 50,000 children of different categories that are directly affected by the conflict," he said. "I am speaking here of children engaged in child labor, child soldiers, children that have been displaced repeatedly, children victims of land mines."

UNICEF introduced a $14 million plan last year to provide education and vocational training to war-affected children. But it says more social workers, health workers and schools are needed to make the program effective.

Tamil rebels began fighting in 1983 for a separate homeland in the north and east. The truce two-years ago halted the fighting, but efforts to permanently end the conflict have been stalled by a power struggle between Sri Lanka's president Chandrika Kumaratunga and prime minister Ranil Wickremesinghe.