Protect children from conscription, say aid agencies

An increasing number of children are being conscripted into Somalia’s fighting factions, exposing them to attacks and separating them from their families, humanitarian agencies have warned.

However, a spokesman for Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government (TFG) has denied recruiting underage soldiers.

"We have no child soldiers among our forces," Abdirahman Dinari, the spokesman, told IRIN on Tuesday. "All our soldiers are over 18 years old. It is the other side [the Union of Islamic Courts - UIC] which has been using force to recruit children."

According to various NGOs and United Nations agencies, the use of child soldiers in Somalia has increased since fighting between the TFG and UIC escalated in December. The fighting culminated with the TFG, backed by Ethiopian troops, forcing the UIC from territories in southern Somalia, and the capital, Mogadishu.

"First hand interviews have been conducted with children as young as 11-years-old at checkpoints, and in the vehicles of various parties to the conflict," said Siddharth Chatterjee, the senior programme officer with the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in Somalia.

The recruitment drive has spread to neighbouring Kenya. Chatterjee added that according to the Northeastern Provincial Commissioner in Kenya, the recruitment of youth from the province by rival armed groups preparing to fight in Somalia began in the last three months of 2006 – most significantly by the UIC.

"An appeal has been made to all parties in the conflict to refrain from recruiting child soldiers and release those already recruited," Chatterjee said. "In Somalia though, an absence of birth registration adds to the degree in difficulty to accurately verify children under 18."

He continued: "There are also reports that the UIC has declared publicly its intention to recruit from schools, and this is most worrying if true."

The latest warnings come almost one week after Radhika Coomaraswamy, Special Representative for the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, said ongoing warfare in Somalia would have serious consequences for children and their families.

"I am very disturbed by recent reports and information on grave violations being committed against children, including the recruitment of child soldiers by parties to the conflict in Somalia," she said, while appealing to parties to the conflict to respect international humanitarian laws to protect children.

In December, the charity Save the Children-UK, expressed concern over the plight of thousands of unaccompanied Somali children who could fall prey to child traffickers and sexual exploitation.

Hundreds wounded in fighting

The government forces were on Tuesday pursuing remnant fighters of the UIC southwards from Kismayo towards the Kenyan border, and latest reports claim the number of killed and wounded continues to rise.

According to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) there is no precise information on the number of casualties so far, but it is believed that hundreds of people have been killed and more than 800 wounded, including both civilians and fighters.

The ICRC also said thousands of civilians had fled their homes, although displacement has generally been over short distances and for short periods.

The charity, Norwegian Church Aid, reported that an estimated 10,000 people had been displaced after fleeing the fighting in southern Somalia.

On Monday, the Kenya government announced that it would not allow any armed groups fleeing Somalia to enter its territory.

"All measures have been taken by the Kenyan government to ensure there will be no spillover of the conflict in Somalia into Kenya," said government spokesman, Alfred Mutua. "The government has put the necessary security measures in place along the common border."

Meanwhile, Dinari said Ethiopian forces would remain in Somalia for as long as they were needed to complete their "mission" there. The Ethiopian troops' mission in Somalia is "to provide logistical support and train our forces". Dinari said the Ethiopians were in Somalia at the invitation of the country's government.

In Addis Ababa, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said his troops could leave within two weeks. Somalia has appealed for regional troops to be deployed to protect the interim government under the auspices of the Intergovernmental Authority on Development and the African Union. Uganda has pledged 1,000 soldiers and Nigeria, an undisclosed number.

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