Authorities are investigating allegations that militants running some madrassas (Islamic schools) in Swat Valley, north-western Pakistan, are recruiting and training children as soldiers.
According to local newspaper reports, the police are questioning six men accused of such offences.
The Swat Valley area, some 160km northeast from Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) capital Peshawar, has seen intense fighting between militants and government forces since November 2007.
However, an agreement was finalised on 21 May between representatives of the militants and government officials in NWFP, under which it is hoped peace will return to the area.
Shaukat Salim, the district coordinator of the Child Rights Committee (CRC) of the Society for the Protection of the Rights of the Child (SPARC), an Islamabad-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), told IRIN that child militancy had been on the rise in the area.
Child militants caught
Salim said that about 25 to 30 madrassa students, aged between seven and 15, had been used by leaders of extremist outfits in Swat to carry out attacks. These children have been detained by security forces and are being held at Swat District Jail.
According to Salim, six others students from a madrassa in the Kabal tehsil (sub-district) have been apprehended by the police for their alleged involvement in an attempted suicide attack.
Salim also cited the story of Abid, 12, who he said had been forced to wear a suicide bomb jacket with which he was to blow up the district courts. He was also caught and is among those being held at Swat jail, Salim said.
Mian Iftikhar Hussain, NWFP information minister, has stated that the provincial government was "committed to end the suffering caused by militancy in the province".
Child militants beyond NWFP
Photo: Tahira Sarwar/IRIN
|Hand-made AK47s for sale at an illegal workshop near the Afghan border|
This is not the first time in Pakistan that accounts of the recruitment of children as suicide bombers or of training as militants have surfaced.
Some journalists were recently taken to the town of Spinkai in the tribal area of South Waziristan, which lies along the troubled border with Afghanistan, immediately after it had been cleared of militants by the Pakistan military. The journalists reported seeing video footage of teenage boys carrying out executions of those deemed 'enemies' by militants. Other pictures showed a classroom of boys being trained to fight.
A few months ago, teenager Muhammad Jamshed from Lahore told IRIN how at the age of 15 he had been sent by his parents to a madrassa in the town of Kasur along the India-Pakistan border.
"The treatment was very harsh. We were beaten and also some well known militant figures came to the madrassa to persuade students to come with them for 'jihad' [holy war]," Jamshed said, adding that some pupils had gone along with the clerics, but he was not aware of their fate.