Sri Lanka’s cornered Tamil Tiger rebels have intensified conscription of child soldiers, some as young as 14, the United Nations agency for children (Unicef) said on Tuesday.
Unicef’s statement came as the the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) prepared to take a last stand against advancing government forces.
“We have clear indications that the LTTE has intensified forcible recruitment of civilians and that children as young as 14 years old are now being targeted,” said Philippe Duamelle, Unicef’s chief in Sri Lanka.
“The children are facing immediate danger and their lives are at great risk. Their recruitment is intolerable,” said Duamelle.
Unicef said it had recorded 6 000 cases of child recruitment by the LTTE from 2003 to end of 2008.
Unicef also said it was extremely alarmed at the high number of children being injured in the fighting in the northern area of Sri Lanka.
“Children are victims of this conflict by being killed, injured, recruited, displaced, separated and denied their everyday needs due to the fighting,” Unicef said.
They said the main injuries to children have been burns, fractures, shrapnel and bullet wounds.
Sri Lankan troops appear on the verge of crushing the rebels’ 37-year campaign for an independent Tamil homeland after a series of battlefield victories across the northeast of the island.
The Tigers, who are encircled in a small patch of jungle, lashed out at the UN on Tuesday after it accused them of shooting civilians who try to escape the bloody conflict.
The UN said the Tigers have detained tens of thousands of non-combatants inside rebel-held territory and “a growing number of people trying to leave have been shot and sometimes killed” as they seek safety.
A front organisation for the rebels countered the allegations by saying the UN had failed in its duty to protect innocent people.
The UN was “withdrawing even the remaining few local staff from the conflict zone [and] completely shedding its responsibility of caring for the civilians trapped here,” said the Tamils Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO).
The TRO, which is outlawed in several countries, including the United States, said in its statement that the UN was trying to hide “their own failures”.
Tiger leaders have always denied charges that their fighters kill civilians or hold them as “human shields”.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported that families were arriving at a designated “safe zone” inside rebel territory “in a state of utter exhaustion and despair”.
“But the reality is that there is an almost complete lack of medicine and relief items there,” said Paul Castella, head of the ICRC in Sri Lanka, on Tuesday.
“We did save lives today but many people remain behind, helpless and anxiously waiting to be evacuated. It is now a matter of life and death.”
The UN, the US and Britain have asked the Tigers to allow civilians to leave the conflict zone while urging the government in Colombo to declare a temporary truce. Both have rejected the calls. — AFP