UNICEF says Sri Lanka 's Tamil Tiger rebels still holding up to 1,358 underage combatants
Fri March 10, 2006 03:46 EST .
Associated Press Writer
COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AP) _ Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels still hold as many as 1,358 child soldiers, despite pledges by the guerrillas to free all underage combatants, the U.N. children's agency said Friday.
The issue of child soldiers has come under renewed focus since Wednesday, when the government went on a publicity blitz by inviting newspapers to photograph two underage combatants who fled from rebel camps and took shelter with the Sri Lankan navy earlier in the week.
Their accounts of being kidnapped and held by the rebels contradicted pledges made by the guerrillas to U.N. agencies that they had stopped recruiting children.
UNICEF said the Tamil Tigers are known to have recruited 5,368 child soldiers since 2002, when the rebels and the government signed a cease-fire agreement brokered by Norway.
Yasmin Haque, a UNICEF official, said the rebels have made several releases of child soldiers, and there also have been many cases of children escaping. But UNICEF's database shows that 1,358 child combatants are still with the rebels, he said.
Haque said the government's media blitz was regretful, with photographs of the two teenagers _ aged 15 and 17 _ printed on the front pages of several newspapers.
The two boys escaped from two different camps in northeastern Trincomalee and eastern Batticaloa, military spokesman Brig. Sudhir Samarasinghe said.
They were flown to Colombo on Wednesday and made to pose for the media. Asked by military officials, the two teenagers displayed their weapons skills, including handling automatic rifles.
A top rebel leader, Seevaratnam Puleedevan, expressed surprise at the case and said they were reviewing the issue of child soldiers again.
``We have freed many such underage people, but it is a difficult job, as they often lie to join our movement, and there are no proper birth certificates to establish their correct ages,'' he said.
The two boys were abducted from their homes in Trincomalee on March 1-2 by the rebels from the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, the military said in a statement. They fled from the camp on Tuesday and took shelter at a naval camp in Trincomalee that night.
``These escapees have told naval troops that more than 100 children of the same age range are receiving LTTE weapon training,'' the statement said.
Samarasinghe said another teenager who fled from a rebel camp in Batticaloa on March 4 and reported to police in Batticaloa on Tuesday had revealed that ``there are around 70 combatants under training whom he thought were of his age.'' The 15-year-old will be handed over to his parents, Samarasinghe said.
The rebels began fighting in 1983, claiming discrimination against Sri Lanka's 3.2 million ethnic Tamil minority by the 14 million Sinhalese majority.
The 2002 cease-fire halted the fighting, but a recent spike in violence has threatened to plunge the country back into civil war.
Rebel and government negotiators plan to hold a second round of talks in Geneva, Switzerland, on April 19-21 in an attempt to salvage the truce.
Discuss this story
Published: Fri Mar 10 08:56:35 EST 2006