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Last Updated: Sunday, 21 March, 2004, 13:22 GMT
Tamil Tigers free child soldiers
Tamil Tiger rebels
The rebel group claims the children were volunteers
Tamil Tiger rebels in Sri Lanka have released 35 child soldiers, aged between 12 and 18.

The move was welcomed by the United Nations children's agency, Unicef, which said the boys were handed over in the eastern port city of Trincomalee.

But a spokesman for the agency accused the Tamil Tigers of continuing to recruit under-age fighters.

Geoffrey Keele said the practice showed the Tamil Tigers were not living up to the commitments they had made.

Unicef estimates that more than 700 child soldiers were recruited by the Tamil Tigers, or LTTE, in 2003, despite a ceasefire in Sri Lanka's long-running civil war.

'Unacceptable practice'

The Tamil Tigers have never admitted to recruiting children - they say the youngsters had volunteered to carry out political and administrative work for the group as they were unable to make a living elsewhere.

Unicef says the practice of hiring child soldiers contravenes the Action Plan for Children Affected by War, which the group signed up to in June last year.

"Since the LTTE and the government signed the Action Plan for Children Affected by War on 16 June 2003, the LTTE has continued to recruit more children into its ranks each month in all eight districts of the north and east than the number that they release," Mr Keele said.

"This is simply unacceptable and all recruitment must cease now if the children of this country are to have a better future and the LTTE is to live up to its commitments under the action plan," he added.

Unicef will now work to reunite the children with their families and reintegrate them into their communities.

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