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Friday, 31 January, 2003, 12:29 GMT
Analysis: Sri Lanka's child soldiers
The UN children's agency is trying to find out what Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels are doing about their child soldiers. The issue is casting a shadow over peace talks.
Allegations of child recruitment have dogged the Tamil Tiger rebels for years.
There is no doubt the rebels have extensively recruited under aged fighters - boys and girls sometimes as young as 12-years-old. Many have been forcibly abducted from their parents.
Figures are hard to come by. But last year alone, international cease fire monitors said they had confirmed more than 300 cases of child recruitment.
At a recent commemoration of dead rebel fighters, young girls from a female Tiger regiment paraded in uniform. Many of them looked well under 18.
The Tigers would argue that malnutrition caused by decades of war and poverty means their recruits look younger than they really are. Also, few people in the conflict areas have birth certificates.
Some of the surrendered Tiger male fighters are obviously underage because their voices have not broken yet.
"They trained me to move forward while the battle was on and to take a gun apart and put it back together again" explained 13-year-old Haran - not his real name - in a squeaky voice.
He spoke to me at a rehabilitation camp for former rebels I visited last year.
Haran says he was picked up by the rebels while going to pluck yams to support his family - a task that's now fallen on his 10-year-old brother.
"There are other small children like him," 16-year-old Ganesh told me. He tried and failed to join the Tigers twice before they finally accepted him.
Ganesh joined the rebels to avenge his dead father and escape a life of poverty in eastern Sri Lanka.
The rehabilitation centre where these boys live is also home to adults who fought for the Tigers.
But it is a rehabilitation camp in name alone. Those in charge can barely manage to feed the inmates three meals a day.
For young boys incarceration in a rehabilitation camp hundreds of miles from home is a second form of abuse.
The Sri Lankan Government and the United Nations children's organisation (Unicef) have been made aware of the problem but have not yet done anything to help return home boys like Ganesh and Haran.
Instead the focus seems to be on prevention of further child recruitment by the Tigers.
At a meeting this week a senior rebel commander agreed to return child soldiers. His suggestion was that the parents should hold meetings with Tamil Tiger district commanders and the international cease fire monitors and ask for their children back.
But many parents may feel too intimidated to approach senior rebel leaders with their complaints, fearing repercussions.
The Tigers have said they have a plan to tackle the issue of complaints of child recruitment but the details of the plan are not clear.
Part of the problem for the Tigers in confronting this most sensitive of issues is that they are loathe to admit that child recruitment is still going on.
They have conceded it happened in the past. But now they are obliged not to recruit underage fighters by the cease fire agreement they signed a year ago.
It is also possible that some rebel leaders who themselves would have joined the movement while under 18 years do not really understand the international outcry about child recruitment.
If that is the case, then they are only addressing the issue because of outside pressure and the need for international recognition.
There is also the question of whether continued reports of child recruitment are part of an official rebel policy.
On Tuesday the head of the Tigers political wing blamed the problem on ill-disciplined junior members of his organisation - admitting for the first time that they do not have total control over their forces.
But many people argue that the Tigers are masters of control and that is one of the reasons why they are continuing to recruit while at the same time denying it.
The idea, critics say, is that the Tigers want to be able to exercise psychological control over the local population who may feel that if there is no longer war they no longer need the rebels.
Creating a climate of fear and tension helps to prevent other Tamil groups springing up and reinforces the rebels claim to be the sole representatives of Sri Lankan Tamils.
Local leaders in the east say they have received harrowing stories from sick parents whose only sons have been forcibly abducted by the Tigers in recent months.
People there say children are being recruited because the Tigers simply cannot get enough adults.
They believe it may be part of a strategy of telling the Sri Lankan Government that though the Tigers are talking peace, they are always ready for war if the government does not deliver on its promises.
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