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The BBC's Andrew Gilligan
"He is the only soldier in the room over the age of about seventeen"
 real 28k

Monique Nagelkerke, Save the Children
"It's a positive start"
 real 28k

Thursday, 25 May, 2000, 17:17 GMT 18:17 UK
Child soldiers to be disarmed
Abu Kamara
Abu Kamara, 14, has been removed from the front line
All children fighting in the Sierra Leonean army are to be disarmed and removed from the frontline following a request from the UK Government.

Sierra Leonean President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah told Britain's High Commissioner Alan Jones that all soldiers aged under 18 will now be demobilised from pro-government forces.

The move comes after an outcry over a photograph of a 14-year-old boy carrying what appeared to be a British rifle which was printed in the UK press.

The president says the boy, Abu Kamara, has since been stripped of his weapon and removed from the war zone.


President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah
President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah: All under-18s will be demobilised

Any commanders allowing children to fight will be subjected to severe disciplinary action, the government now says.

Britain is expected to send about 10,000 self-loading rifles and hundreds of thousands of rounds of ammunition to the west African country

It is part of its commitment to help the Sierra Leone Government defeat Revolutionary United Front rebels.

'Responsible army'

The UK Foreign Office said President Kabbah will stick to a promise given in March 1999 that British weapons would be used only by regular Sierra Leone Army (SLA) troops in accordance with international law.

"They will be released under the supervision of British officers to ensure that they only go to adult soldiers of the SLA for training or for legitimate operational requirements," a Foreign Office spokesman said.

"This is exactly why the British-led Military Advisory and Training Team is necessary in Sierra Leone - to create a responsible and accountable Sierra Leone army, one that does not use child soldiers."

Armed Forces Minister John Spellar said he had been shocked by the picture of Abu Kamara.


John Spellar
John Spellar: Shocked by the pictures of Abu Kamara

"That's why we are working with the Sierra Leone Government to rapidly reduce and eliminate the use of child soldiers," he told BBC Radio 4.

But Shadow Defence Secretary Iain Duncan Smith warned there were still dangers associated with the government's decision to arm the SLA.

"The government has yet to demonstrate that they will have any overall control over who uses these weapons," he said.

"They should recognise that their action could backfire with dramatic results - including the possibility of these weapons being used against British soldiers."

According to United Nations' estimates, more than 100,000 child soldiers are fighting in conflicts in Africa.

Many countries including Angola, Sierra Leone and Uganda have children as young as seven fighting for their governments.

Aid workers estimate that as many as half the 15,000 rebel fighters in Sierra Leone may be children.

Antonio Cabral, Cafod's programme officer for Sierra Leone, said: "They use them because they are agile, and under the influence of drugs they have no fear. They are frontline troops."

Hostages

The 29 United Nations peacekeepers who were freed earlier this week by rebels in Sierra Leone are reported to have returned to rejoin their units.

The peacekeepers, all from Zambia, were the latest group of hostages released by the RUF rebels on the border with Liberia.

The rebels are still holding about 260 UN soldiers, most of them from Zambia.

The UN says it hopes more will be released before the weekend.

Four government soldiers and two foreign journalists were killed in a rebel ambush in Sierra Leone on Wednesday.

The journalists were travelling in army trucks when they came under fire near the strategic Rogberi Junction about 80 km (50 miles) north-east of Freetown.

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See also:

25 May 00 | Africa
Fatal ambush in Sierra Leone
20 May 00 | Africa
UN to boost Sierra Leone force
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