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Tamil Rebels Free Child Soldiers Recruited After Tsunami


In Sri Lanka, Tamil Tiger rebels have freed 23 child soldiers recruited in the aftermath of December's tsunami disaster. Human rights groups accuse the rebels of using thousands of underage combatants during the two-decade civil conflict in the country.

The Tamil Tigers say they have handed over 23 young recruits to a human rights group, Northeast Secretariat on Human Rights, in the northeast of Sri Lanka. In a statement issued Friday, the rebels said all have been reunited with their parents.

The release of the young people comes a week after the United Nations' children's fund accused the rebels of recruiting dozens of young boys and girls since the tsunami ravaged the country in December.

U.N. spokesman Geoffrey Keele in Colombo has welcomed the release of these children, but says there are still hundreds of underage recruits in the rebel ranks, known as the L.T.T.E.

"Since the tsunami struck on 26th of December we have confirmed 52 cases of recruitment of children," he said. "So we are very pleased that 23 children have been released this weekend. But there are still 1400 children with the L.T.T.E. and this is a practice, which needs to stop and needs to stop now."

The rebels say efforts are being made to track down parents of other young boys and girls who had been taken from tsunami relief centers or recruited from areas held by the guerrillas.

The rebels used thousands of child soldiers during their bloody two-decade war for autonomy.

The fighting stopped under a cease-fire signed three years ago. But the rebels have been accused of continuing to enlist children. The Tamil Tigers deny the accusations, saying the youngsters volunteer to join their ranks.

In terms of the political situation, the rebels have recently stated they are putting their struggle for autonomy in the north and east on the backburner to concentrate on rehabilitating communities devastated by the tsunami.

On Friday, President Chandrika Kumaratunga also urged Sri Lankans to come together to rebuild the tsunami battered nation.

Her appeal came in a speech to mark Sri Lanka's 57th anniversary of independence from British rule. For the first time in years, she did not specifically mention the country's ethnic conflict involving the Tamil rebels, but asked people to "unite with those who we consider our enemies."

The ethnic conflict for autonomy erupted in the north and east in 1983 amid complaints of discrimination by the Sinhalese against the minority Tamil community. Some 30,000 people have been killed in the struggle.