02/26/2009, 00.00
SRI LANKA
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President Rajapaksa launches campaign against use of child soldiers

by Melani Manel Perera
The government and Tamil rebels are accusing each other of enlisting minors. The Catholic Church and civil society assert that 60% of the combatants for both factions are children with an average age of 16.

Colombo (AsiaNews) - A national campaign against the exploitation of child soldiers. The "special initiative" is promoted by the government of Colombo. President Mahinda Rajapaksa, illustrating its contents yesterday, asserted that it is "necessary for preventing child recruitment, in tandem with the freeing of all children already recruited and brutalized." For the leader of the Sri Lankan government, this campaign "is at the core of our final thrust to eradicate the scourge of terrorism from our nation." The aim of the initiative is to put an end to the forced enlistment of minors, and create programs to recover and reintegrate former child soldiers.

The use of adolescents in the conflict between government forces and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is an issue about which the two factions have repeatedly exchanged accusations. The international community, on a number of occasions, has also warned the army of Colombo and the Tamil rebels against using child soldiers. Recently, UNICEF claimed that the LTTE has intensified its recruitment work in recent months, and released figures according to which, from 2003 to 2008, the rebels forcibly enlisted at least 6,000 adolescents. The figures provided by the UN agency confirm the repeated accusations from various organizations of civil society on the island, and the various Christian Churches of Sri Lanka.

Referring to the UNICEF data, Rajapaksa's government accuses the rebels of instituting a genuine "Baby Brigade," and says that 6,288 children under the age of 18 had been enlisted by the LTTE as of December of 2008. The Tamil Tigers respond to Colombo by saying that they have sent home more than 2,000 adolescents among their ranks, and accuse the army of recruiting minors itself, and using them for paramilitary brigades. The Catholic Church and organizations of civil society in the country assert that 60% of the combatants in both factions involved in the conflict are children with an average age of 16.

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