As Somalia's Transitional Federal Government struggles to maintain its loose grip over parts of the capital, Mogadishu, controversy is erupting over the use of child soldiers in the Horn of Africa nation.
The Somali government has vehemently denied that its armed forces, which consist in part of loosely affiliated independent militias, recruits child soldiers to battle Islamist insurgents in Somalia.
The controversy is due to a report published by The New York Times on Sunday. The article, quoting Somali human rights activists and United Nations officials, said government forces were fielding children as young as 9 years old on the front lines.
Government spokesperson Abdurisaq Qeylow called the report totally unofficial and false. Qeylow said that all Somali soldiers were at least 20 years of age and expressed the government's willingness to conduct investigations into the matter.
It is widely known that child soldiers are active in Somalia. Around 45 percent of the country's population is under the age of 15, and rebel groups such as Hizbul Islam and the al-Qaida-affiliated al-Shabab have increasingly drawn children into their efforts to overthrow the Somali government.
But increasingly, the international community has been raising concerns about government recruitment of under age fighters.
The U.N. secretary-general's annual report on children in armed conflict observed a steady increase in the use of child soldiers in Somalia over the past three years and estimated that at least 1,500 children had been recruited by government affiliated militias in 2009 alone. The report said in the same year more than 280 child soldiers had been killed and 550 wounded in the fighting.
The U.S. State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons report also found evidence that children were being conscripted into military service. The report highlighted increased government efforts to combat underage recruitment but indicated that government affiliated militias were recruiting children from Somalia as well as refugee camps in Northeastern Kenya.
New York-based Human Rights Watch has called on the United States to exert pressure on the Somali government to end the practice. The United States is one of the largest donors to the Somali government and the organization has expressed concern the nation's money is being used to recruit children.
These appeals are starting to reach Washington. The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on African Affairs, Democratic Senator Russ Feingold, has been a frequent critic of the Somali government. In a letter sent to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Thursday, the senator said all aid to the government should be cut until the Somali government can guarantee its recruitment does not target children. Democratic Senator Richard Durbin also called for pressure on the Somali government, expressing concern that funding for child soldiers was a violation of U.S. law.
In a move that was applauded by human rights groups in Somalia, President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed ordered a probe into military recruitment. The president also instructed his military chief to immediately demobilize any underage recruits found in the Somali forces. The report is due in one month.
Somalia has been without a functioning government since 1991 when President Mohamed Siad Barre was overthrown by warring factions. The U.N.-backed Transitional Federal Government controls only parts of the capital and faces opposition from various rebel groups seeking to establish an Islamic state.