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Monday, June 22, 1998 Published at 07:02 GMT 08:02 UK


Marching orders for teenage soldiers?

The British Army is actively recruiting teenagers

The British Army is being urged by the United Nations to stop sending young soldiers into war.

[ image: The forces need teenagers to fill their ranks]
The forces need teenagers to fill their ranks
The UN has adopted a worldwide policy to persuade armies to raise their recruitment age from 16 to 18, but the British Army which is trying to reverse a decline in recruitment opposes the move.

The UK Government is co-hosting a conference on the issue with the UN and the European Union.

The conference is being chaired by the UN's Under-Secretary-General, Olara Otunnu. He said: "It is very important in part because of the children of Britain. They too should not participate in armed conflict below an agreed, legal, age limit which has been agreed to universally."

[ image: British teenagers are trained by the army]
British teenagers are trained by the army
He believes the UK should set an example: "Britain is a very important country in the world, people watch what Britain does, so in terms of setting example, in terms of having influence, this is very important."

However, the army describes the UN's initiative as "potentially disastrous".

"We lose the ability to attract the young individual at the appropriate time to a career of first choice. We are unable to offer those young people who want an army career the opportunity to have that career," said Brigadier Freddie Viggers, from Army Recruitment.

The British Army is stepping up its efforts to recruit 16-year-olds as part of a drive to fill the gaps in its ranks.

It will open a foundation college in three months for young recruits at Uniacke barracks, near Harrogate, North Yorkshire. Promotional literature for the college uses the phrase, "New opportunities for 16-year-olds".

Neither does the UN's policy cut any ice with some of the army's current 16-year-old recruits.

"I thought it was just the right age, just coming out of school, it was no time to sit around and doss around at home," said one young man.

[ image: Millions of children have died in worldwide conflicts]
Millions of children have died in worldwide conflicts
Another said: "If you're 16 and join the army, you're obviously going to grow up pretty fast and your maturity level's going to be more than an 18-year-old."

Their views were echoed by a female recruit: "At 18, they'll just think about getting out there, whereas at 16 they've got more to learn."

But Unicef, who are backing the policy, estimate that two million children have been killed in war in the last 10 years, while more than four million have been physically disabled.

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