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Amnesty International Calls on Burundi to Stop Recruiting Child Soldiers - 2004-03-25

The human rights organization Amnesty International is calling for Burundi's government and rebel groups to stop recruiting and using child soldiers.

According to Amnesty International, up to 7,000 children under the age of 18 need to be disarmed and sent back home in Burundi.

The head of the organization's Uganda office, Stephanie Brancaforte, says the Burundi government and rebel groups, including the Forces for the Defense of Democracy, are all using child soldiers.

At the beginning of this year, the U.N. children's agency began a demobilization program with the government and the rebels. But Ms. Brancaforte says only about 300 children have been demobilized so far.

She says, it is very difficult to convince the fighting forces to surrender their child soldiers.

"Until there is real peace, I mean a lot of the leaders of the armed groups do not feel that they have a great incentive to demobilize all the child soldiers," she said. "Some of them are saying, we will not demobilize ours until everyone else has demobilized theirs."

Ms. Brancaforte says child soldiers often experience psychological and physical trauma. She says it is very difficult for them to return home, especially if people know they have participated in violence.

She says the children need education, vocational training, and other types of support when they return to their homes, or they may be tempted to return to one of the armed groups to make a living.

Burundi's Ambassador to Kenya, Stanislas Nsabuwanka, claims the Burundi government has not used child soldiers since it signed the peace agreement with the Forces for the Defense of Democracy rebel group last year. The ambassador says the government is working closely with the U.N. children's program to demobilize the children.

Meanwhile, the World Food Program is distributing food aid this week to about 30,000 people, following fighting March 17 in the Kabezi area near Burundi's capital, Bujumbura.

According to a report by the U.N. news agency, at least 13 people were killed when government forces and rebels from the National Liberation Forces clashed in the area.

The Burundi country director for the World Food Program, Zlatan Milisic, says the fighting displaced about 45,000 people.

"Sometimes they have to sleep in the open, sometimes in public buildings, sometimes they stay with friends or with some host families which do not have much more to help them, and this is why it is important for us to be able to assist them as quickly as we can," he said.

The National Liberation Forces are not part of the peace deal signed last year. Observers say, unless the National Liberation Forces are brought on board, peace will not come to Burundi.