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Recruiting Taleban 'child soldiers'

By Syed Shoaib Hasan
BBC News, Tank

Children in Tank
Tank is witnessing a battle for children's hearts and minds

Children in Tank, a remote town at the centre of Taleban activity in north-west Pakistan, are going missing.

It is a disturbing phenomenon that Tank shares with other towns on the edge of Pakistan's tribal belt.

Reports says the children - some as young as 11 - are being kidnapped by pro-Taleban militants.

Most people in Tank are unwilling to admit it is happening and few will talk about it.

Pro-Taleban militants in the region deny they are recruiting children, blaming the region's troubles on government policy.

'Adventure'

When people in Tank can be persuaded to talk about the missing children, most appear to guard every word.

If they open their mouths, the whole family would suffer the Taleban's wrath
Tank resident

"They don't really kidnap the children," says a local teacher.

But he is hesitant and thinks his words through.

"The Taleban convince them it is their duty to carry out jihad [holy struggle]."

But then he admits what he's left unsaid.

"How much convincing does a child need? ... Especially when promised adventure."

The trouble is that in most cases, the "adventure" the Taleban offer usually results in no possibility of return.

Map

"They are being trained as fidayeen," the teacher half whispers.

"Fidayeen" literally means "those who sacrifice their lives".

In Afghanistan today, the term has a new meaning - suicide bomber.

The tale of a local school administrator in the town is typical of what is happening.

"The purpose of their visit [in January] was clear from the start," he said.

"The militants came to town with a mission, and wanted to convert us to their cause.

"They said that jihad was obligatory and those who heed the call are rewarded," the principal said.

"As many as 30 students from each of the four government schools in Tank 'enlisted'.

A similar number have also joined from private schools. The ages of those taken are between 11 to 15 years.

Battle for influence

Asked why the school administration has not simply refused, the staff appear flabbergasted.

Oxford High School in Tank
Oxford High School - police and militants fought pitched battles

"Do you want me to lose my neck?" one asks bluntly.

"The Taleban don't ask for permission - they just tell us."

Even so, not everyone has given way to the militants.

At the private English medium school, Oxford High, an extraordinary battle for influence over the pupils was recently fought.

"They came on 23 March but the children had left," said a school teacher.

"The Taleban said they would be back later."

They did indeed return three days later, while an exam was taking place. The militants agreed for the exam to finish before they tried to take them away.

"They went outside to wait at 1000," the teacher said, "and an hour later all hell broke loose."

Local police and security forces had been monitoring the militants' activities.

"The first sound we heard was of a helicopter flying in low and then a loud explosion," a local explained.

This was at 1100. Over the next two hours the militants and security forces fought pitched battles.

The militants suffered greater losses in the earlier exchanges. But they were soon back in greater numbers, and rolled through the town attacking anything or anyone connected with the government.

Some of the fighters were children as young as 12, eyewitnesses told the BBC.

Hopes 'harboured'

The security forces were also attacked, and now keep a low profile.

Vehicle in Tank
Many locals say they are not properly protected

Since then, the militants have had a free hand in the town.

But the authorities are not willing to admit anything is amiss.

"I have been here just two months," says Muhammad Idrees Khan, the town's deputy chief of police.

He argues that the parents should come forward if there is a problem.

But locals says that parents are extremely scared.

"They harbour hopes of their children returning if they keep quiet," explains one.

"But if they open their mouths, the whole family would suffer the Taleban's wrath."

On the streets of Tank, students coming out of the local college have ambivalent feelings about the situation.

"We are not extremists... we are liberal people," says a student who has just appeared for his physics paper.

"But our identity is Islamic."

Others are highly critical of the government.

"They are the ones who should be protecting us," said one, "and yet there is not much sign that they are even half-prepared to do so."



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