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Rights Group Says Sri Lanka Military Complicit in Use of Child Soldiers

A leading human-rights group says Sri Lanka's government is ignoring a militant group's use of child soldiers and forced conscripts in battles against Tamil rebels. VOA's Suzanne Presto in New Delhi reports.

New York-based Human Rights Watch says the Karuna militant group is forcing hundreds of Sri Lankan children and young adults to serve as soldiers.

Human Rights Watch South Asia researcher Meenakshi Ganguly says the government has condemned the use of child soldiers by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, but it turns a blind eye to the Karuna group doing the same thing.

"This is being done with government complicity, which is the problematic part," she said. "The Sri Lankan government has been very strong on the LTTE's forced recruitment of children, yet now the Karuna group is operating in Sri Lankan government-controlled areas and the government has not done enough to contain this problem."

Karuna militants were once part of the Tamil Tigers, battling the Sri Lankan government for a separate homeland for Sri Lanka's ethnic minority Tamils for decades. But in 2004, the Karuna faction broke away and has since clashed repeatedly with the Tigers, becoming an ally of the government in its fight against the Tamil Tigers.

Indrani Sugathadasa, the secretary of Sri Lanka's Ministry of Child Development and Women's Empowerment, denies government complicity in the use of child soldiers.

"The allegations are not true and Sri Lanka, the present government, the policy is zero-tolerance," she said. "You know, we do not tolerate any child recruitment."

Human Rights Watch says it has conducted interviews with parents who say they have seen Karuna militants take their children, and they have also seen armed children at Karuna camps, which are near Sri Lankan military camps.

"This is very close to the combat areas, so there are military checkpoints all over this area, plus a police presence. And it is impossible for the Karuna group to have done this without government awareness, and in fact, complicity," she said.

In November last year, U.N. special advisor on Sri Lanka, Allan Rock, said government forces were aware of, and at times involved in, child abductions by Karuna militants. The Sri Lankan government says it is investigating the reports.

Sri Lanka's National Security spokesman, Keheliya Rambukwella, said the government takes these accusations very seriously.

"In fact, we want to get into a full scale investigation into it," he said. "Already we are investigating some allegations that have been made against this whole issue."

Rambukwella said the inquiry is ongoing, and the government is waiting for additional evidence before it can say whether any elements of the security forces are aware of the Karuna's alleged use of child soldiers.

Human Rights Watch says it hopes the issue of child soldiers will be addressed when the United Nations discusses the secretary-general's report on the Sri Lanka conflict on February 9.