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Last Updated: Monday, 25 July, 2005, 14:09 GMT 15:09 UK
Tamil rebels 'recruit children'
By Ethirajan Anbarasan
BBC Tamil service

Child soldiers
The Tigers routinely deny recruiting underage fighters
The UN's child agency, Unicef, has accused Sri Lanka's Tamil Tiger rebels of stepping up child recruitment in the island's volatile east.

Unicef officials in the capital, Colombo, say there has been a marked increase in enlisting child soldiers in the last two months.

They have urged the Tamil Tigers to release all the children under their custody without delay.

The Tamil Tigers have vehemently denied recruiting children in the past.

"In June this year, there were 18 cases of child recruitment reported from the eastern Batticaloa region and in July so far we have received complaints of 28 cases in the same area," Jeffrey Keele, Unicef spokesperson, told the BBC.

Stopping child recruitment altogether would be a difficult task in the absence of an active peace process
Jeffrey Keele
Unicef spokesperson

Unicef bases its data on complaints from parents and reports from community leaders and teachers who have worked closely with missing children.

The UN agency has often accused the rebels of recruiting child soldiers over the last 10 years. In February the Tigers said there was no truth in a Unicef report that they recruited 4,700 child soldiers since 2001.

While Unicef officials say that child recruitment has continued throughout the year, the sudden increase is causing concern. However, they admit that not all children are forcibly recruited and that some join the rebel movement voluntarily.

Rebel denial

Tamil Tigers were not immediately available for comment on the latest accusations but have strongly denied recruiting children in the past.

The rebels talk of a policy of not recruiting children and had promised to return volunteers to their parents if they were found to be underage.

The issue of child recruitment has been a major point of difference between Unicef and the Tamil Tigers since a February 2002 ceasefire agreement between the rebels and the government.

But Unicef officials point out that their engagement with the Tamil Tigers has yielded positive results and more than 1,200 child soldiers have been formally released by the rebels in the last three years.

A few weeks ago Tamil rebels reportedly released nine children from their custody.

Truce under threat

But the UN estimates that the Tigers still have more than 1,000 children in their ranks, and officials say they will continue to press for their release.

Unicef's allegations come at a time of heightened tensions between the Tamil Tigers and the Sri Lankan government over charges of ceasefire violations.

More than 400 people are reported to have died since the truce was agreed.

"Stopping child recruitment altogether would be a difficult task in the absence of an active peace process," says Jeffrey Keele.

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