Lankan Tigers abducting fewer children: UN
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Lankan Tigers abducting fewer children: UN

The number of children taken by the Tigers has fallen every year since a 2002 ceasefire halted two decades of civil war, UNICEF said.

india Updated: Mar 23, 2006 12:34 IST

Children are still being kidnapped by Sri Lanka's Tamil Tigers to train as fighters, the UN children's agency UNICEF says, but the abductions appear to be less frequent four years into a ceasefire.

The number of children taken by the Tigers has fallen every year since a 2002 ceasefire halted two decades of civil war, UNICEF senior programme co-ordinator Yasmin Ali Haque said, but child recruitment was still continuing at an unacceptable level.

"Most of them are forcible," she told Reuters in an interview late on Wednesday in UNICEF's Colombo office.

"Children going home from school are apprehended. They're sat behind a motorcycle and then they're off. They're gone."

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) used child soldiers widely in their fight for a Tamil homeland. In January, Reuters met a 23-year-old Tiger commander in Sri Lanka's east who joined the rebels a decade earlier, when he was just 13.

"Some of them also believe in the nation... the lure of the cause," Ali Haque said. "Some of them are running away for whatever reason, be it poverty or abuse. The responsibility still lies with the LTTE."

Finding a lasting end to a war that has already killed more than 64,000 people was key to giving children more options and stopping them from wanting to fight, she said.

Talks between the government and Tigers are due to continue in Switzerland next month, but the rebels continue to threaten a return to war.

The Tigers say they no longer take children. They say some recruits lie about their age when they join, but the rebels release them as soon as they are discovered.

UNICEF helps run courses to reintegrate released children back into society.

Ali Haque said the average age of Tiger child fighters had risen from 14 in 2001 to 16 today, but she was not convinced the rebels are really trying to screen out children.

"There is no such thing as a voluntary recruitment of a child," she said. "If they are really serious... the LTTE should ask who ever is coming in for their birth certificate. And that's a document people really keep here."

Between the 2002 truce and the end of February, worried parents had reported to UNICEF 5,404 cases of children among the Tiger ranks, she said. Of those, 1,384 had still not been released -- although of those, 811 were now over 18.

With many parents too frightened to report child recruitments, Ali Haque said UNICEF believed it was only seeing around a third of all cases. Two-thirds of child soldiers released by the Tigers had never appeared on their database, she said.

UNICEF recorded 1,280 cases of children being taken into the rebel group in 2003, falling to 675 in 2005.

In January 2006, it logged 29 cases and 14 were reported for February, a drastic fall from a recent spike in July when UNICEF says the Tigers took 155 children.

The LTTE say renegade ex-rebels known as the Karuna group, which the Tigers say act as government-backed paramilitary soldiers, have also been abducting children. UNICEF says it has had complaints of such abductions but no strong evidence.

First Published: Mar 23, 2006 12:34 IST