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UNICEF appeals to LTTE to stop recruiting kids

The UN agency for children said LTTE had, in the past six months, recruited 43 children a month on an average, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Feb 14, 2006 17:59 IST

UNICEF has appealed to the LTTE to stop recruiting children for its combat units, and return those already recruited to their parents.

UNICEF's representative in Sri Lanka, JoaAnna VanGerpen, said in a press release on Tuesday that the LTTE had, in the past six months, recruited, on an average, 43 children a month.

She appealed for the release of all the kids in its custody.

VanGerpen's appeal assumes importance in the light of the forthcoming talks in Geneva between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE on the implementation of the ceasefire agreement and restoration of normalcy in the war-torn island.

In the talks to be held on February 22 and 23, one of the key issues to be raised by the government would be child recruitment by the militant group.

VanGerpen said that recruitment of children had declined in the past six months, and the average age of the young recruit had gone up from 14 to 16 since the signing of the Ceasefire Agreement in February 2002.

But too few of those recruited were returned to their parents, she pointed out.

LTTE not keeping promises

The LTTE, which had earlier denied that it was using children in military combat, became defensive about it after the Ceasefire Agreement was signed.

As part of the internationalised peace process, which began in February 2002, the militant group agreed to release and rehabilitate the kids it admitted it had in its ranks.

However, while the peace process did lead to a steady fall in the recruitment of children, the release of the recruited children had been unsatisfactory.

Only 79 were released in the last six months, VanGerpen said.

She also said that since January 2002, UNICEF had recorded 5,368 cases of child recruitment.

As per current international standards, anybody less than 18 years of age is a child and cannot be forced into adult occupations, especially soldiering.

In UNICEF's view, child recruitment has remained an "unresolved situation" in Sri Lanka.

LTTE's defence

In its defence, the LTTE has argued that the children in its ranks are not soldiers at all, but destitute village boys and girls, who are cared for in special institutions called "Sencholai".

And the cause of destitution in Sri Lanka's Tamil-speaking North East is war, it points out. Children can lead normal lives only if war is halted and normalcy is restored.

SL army's view

However, according to Sri Lankan military officials, the LTTE has routinely used children in military combat.

Lt Gen Srilal Weerasoriya, a former Sri Lankan Army Commander, once told journalists that the LTTE had been using children to recover weapons and other assets from dead cadres and other battle casualties.

Kids were also a vital link in the supply chain during battles, he said.

"About 20% of any LTTE unit engaged in combat is dedicated to recovery work, and those deployed are mostly intrepid young persons," Gen Weerasooriya said.

Children from the rural areas are known to be fearless, and the LTTE, like other armed groups in other parts of the world, believes in catching them young.

First Published: Feb 14, 2006 13:49 IST