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Child soldiers in spotlight as Mindanao battle rages

ICC Note:

The battle over Muslim autonomy that has cost the lives and homes of thousands of Christians over the past months has also revealed that the MILF forces may be recruiting child soldiers.

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10/21/08 Philippines (IRIN) Muslim separatist rebels engaged in battle with Philippines troops on Mindanao island since August have continued to use children as combatants, despite international appeals to stop the practice, sources say.
While the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) leadership has publicly denied using child combatants, evidence recovered from fallen rebel camps indicates otherwise. Witnesses say the MILF has also conscripted children (younger than 18) into “auxiliary roles”, such as cooks, porters and guides.
“We could hear the distinct voices of male children screaming amid the din of gunfire,” said an army brigade officer in Mindanao, whose unit is in the frontlines against the MILF near the town of Datu Piang, where some of the heaviest fighting has occurred. “This is a condemnable act. They use children to do the fighting, while the MILF leaders hide in the background.”

Heavy government reprisals have led to many MILF deaths – nearly 200 since August, based on official statistics. About 100,000 civilians are still in evacuation camps, where food shortages and a threat of disease outbreaks amid the monsoon season are straining government resources.
The military is girding for intensified MILF attacks after the Supreme Court on 14 October ruled the deal was “unconstitutional”. The 15 justices of the court blasted the government for offering a peace deal that was not publicly scrutinised.
With civilians in many Christian parts of Mindanao also arming themselves against MILF attacks, aid groups say more bloodshed looks inevitable.

Evidence gathered at rebel camps and since declassified by the military showed that children were being used in the fighting. A video clip released to the press by the army showed children in rebel military gear conducting drills in what appeared to be ceremonies inducting them into the movement.
A document left in one of the camps showed “child soldiers” being moulded into “tough, self-reliant fighting men”.
The recruits are told to “maintain an aggressive spirit [and instill the] will to close and kill, or capture the enemy”, one of the training documents, hand-written in Arabic and broken English, stated. It also contained chapters on how to dismantle and hide automatic rifles and make powerful home-made bombs.

“The involvement of children even in auxiliary roles such as cooks, porters, informants and in the case of girl soldiers as sex slaves is a violation of international human rights standards and Philippine laws,” Ryan Silverio, the group’s Southeast Asia regional coordinator, told IRIN.
Human Rights Watch warned that a sudden escalation of conflict “can lead to a spike in the number of children recruited into armed groups. This is especially a worry when an armed group, like the MILF, is known to use children,” said Bedde Sheppard, HRW’s Asia researcher on children. Sheppard said the government also needed to “send a strong and clear message to its own armed forces that they too are forbidden from arming, training, or recruiting children”.
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