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Number of Child Soldiers in Somalia May Top 5,000, UN Reports

FILE - A young boy leads hard-line Islamist al-Shabab fighters as they conduct military exercises in northern Mogadishu's Suqaholaha neighborhood, Somalia.

A top official with the U.N. Children's Fund says there could be 5,000 child soldiers in Somalia as al-Shabab continues its recruiting campaigns.

In an interview with VOA Somali, Susannah Price, UNICEF chief of communication, said the recruitment and use of young children as soldiers was documented, and at surprisingly high numbers.

"This is a very, very … disturbing situation,” Price said. “Indeed, there could be up to 5,000 child soldiers. We know that al-Shabab has a recruiting campaign for children sometimes involving persuasion. They may be giving money or food sometimes. The children in the [displaced persons] camps are an easy target."

In the past, an estimated 2,000 to 3,000 children — sometimes as young as 9 — were enlisted in the Somali armed forces, according to UNICEF.

This came as the African continent on Thursday commemorated the Day of the African Child under the theme "Conflict and Crisis in Africa: Protecting All Children's Rights."

Somalia signed the UNICEF Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), making Somalia the 195th state to ratify the convention.

The ratification means that Somali children now have legally binding rights with the CRC, providing the framework for the government to promote and protect those rights.

Price called on Somali leaders to prioritize the protection of children's rights and the creation of a safer environment for Somali children.

"It is very important to focus on peace building and to call on all leaders to look at the children, to protect the rights of children and allow them to get the rights every other child in the world is entitled to," she said.

The Day of the African Child focuses the spotlight on children’s rights in an effort to remind the continent's governments that the issue needs continued attention.