An international human rights body says that Ivory Coast forces have recruited hundreds of children among refugees and former child soldiers from Liberia. The report comes as tensions in the divided country escalate despite proposed peace talks.
New York-based Human Rights Watch says that children as young as 13-years-old are crossing the western border between Ivory Coast and Liberia to join militias supporting President Laurent Gbagbo.
Spokeswoman Vanessa Saenen, says that war in Ivory Coast could threaten the stability of the whole region. The organization is urging the South African mediator, Thabo Mbeki, to take up the issue of child soldiers with all parties during mediation talks in South Africa scheduled to begin Sunday.
"We're seeing right now that there's an intensified recruiting again at a time basically when the Ivorian government is preparing peace talks with the rebels in the north in a couple of days," she said. "So that gives a really strange signal."
Ms. Saenen says that it is difficult to control the porous border, where there is a ready supply of weapons and demobilized soldiers left over from Liberia's conflict of 15 years. She says although fighting forces were disarmed in Liberia last year, lack of funding meant very few children received the education and training promised to them.
"Basically what we hear from kids is that they're saying, we're sitting here, we're hanging round streets," she said. "We lack money and we have no food, and we have no education. They are getting frustrated and it makes them vulnerable to start fighting again."
In the Human Rights Watch report, some children describe receiving uniforms and weapons from Ivorian military personnel.
The spokesman for Ivorian Armed Forces, Jules Yao Yao, said that he did not know about the recruiting. He is quoted as also saying it is the problem of those bringing children into their forces.
To recruit children younger than 15 is considered a war crime.
Spokesman for the U.N. human rights division, Simon Munzu, says that his organization has not taken any specific actions to prevent the recruitment of children.
"It is of course a matter of great concern to us, that children, by which we mean young people less than the age of 15 for most, but 18 for others, continue to be used by the various protagonists in the Ivorian conflict," he said. "And we do of course reiterate our call to the various parties to desist from the continuing use of child soldiers."
United Nations peacekeepers have reported increased militia movement in the west of the country, but have been unable to say whether they were on the government or rebel side. The May 2003 cease-fire between forces loyal to President Laurent Gbagbo and the so-called Force Nouvelle rebels has been violated several times. The latest violation was a militia incursion involving two children into a rebel area in February.