Officials with the U.N. Children's Fund in Sri Lanka say they have confirmed 40 cases of children being abducted or recruited as soldiers by the Tamil Tiger rebel group. It is the first major series of such recruitments since the December tsunami affected areas under the rebels' control.

A spokesman for UNICEF in the Sri Lankan capital, Martin Dawes, says the organization is seeking the safe return of 40 children taken since last month's tsunami disaster by the Tamil rebels, also known as the LTTE.

"We have had 40 verified cases by UNICEF of child recruitment of the LTTE since the tsunami. When we say verified, these are cases that have come to our attention from families or concerned people, which we were able to check out and basically take to the LTTE as a complaint," he said.

The December 26 tsunami that killed nearly 40,000 people in Sri Lanka primarily swept into the nation's northern and eastern coasts, including many areas under the rebels' control. The disaster prompted fears that the rebels would use the situation to recruit or abduct scores of children who had lost their parents or were temporarily separated from them.

But Mr. Dawes says few of the children were recruited from camps for displaced people, suggesting that there may be broader strategy at work.

"What is interesting about the figures is that out of the 40, four were taken out of the displacement camps, which suggest that it is a general recruitment amongst the population," he explained.

There was no immediate reaction to the accusation from the Tamil Tigers.

UNICEF charges that the rebels have recruited children to serve as soldiers for years. The organization says the rebels took more than 3,500 children during an 18-month period between 2002 and 2004.

The rebels say children join their ranks voluntarily, to escape poverty.

The separatist group has waged a violent 20-year campaign for independence or greater autonomy for those areas where the ethnic Tamil minority is predominant. More than 60,000 people have died in the conflict.

Since the tsunami, the rebels and the government have discussed ways of working together to get relief supplies to all areas of the country. But each side has also accused the other of taking advantage of the disaster for political purposes.