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Sri Lanka Tamil group to free child soldiers: UNICEF

world Updated: Dec 04, 2008 15:44 IST

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A government-backed Tamil militant group in Sri Lanka has pledged to release 62 child soldiers from its ranks, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said on Thursday.

The TMVP party led by former Tamil Tiger Vinayagamoorthy Muralitharan, better known as Colonel Karuna, signed an agreement with UNICEF and the Colombo government to release the underaged soldiers by the end of the year.

"This agreement shows a clear political commitment and is a very important step in putting an end to the recruitment and use of children by the TMVP," the UNICEF representative in Sri Lanka, Philippe Duamelle, said.

However rights groups accused the TMVP of not honouring similar pledges in the past.

UNICEF figures showed that there were 133 outstanding cases of child recruitment by the group at the end of October.

Of those, 62 were still under 18 years of age while the remaining 71 were now above 18, but had been recruited when they were children.

Human rights groups and UN officials have often accused the TMVP of recruiting boys and girls with the alleged support of government troops and police. The Sri Lankan government denies involvement.

The TMVP was created after Colonel Karuna broke away from the main Tamil Tiger separatist movement in 2004 and began cooperating with government forces in a military campaign against the main Tiger guerrilla group.

The UN agency said there were another 1,500 outstanding cases of child soldier recruitment by Tiger guerrillas.

The agency estimates that its figures reflect only a third of the actual number of children enlisted.

In September, the government ordered UN agency staff out of rebel-held northern regions, citing safety reasons, as the military moved to dismantle Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) strongholds in the north.

"As a result, UNICEF has since been unable to receive and verify cases of child recruitment since that time," the agency said.

Tens of thousands of people have died since the LTTE launched a separatist campaign in 1972 to carve out an independent state for minority Tamils in the north and east of the Sinhalese-majority island.