300,000 child soldiers in front line

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ACROSS THE world, from Africa and Latin America to south Asia, at least 300,000 children - some of them aged little more than 10 - are actively serving as soldiers in combat, a new report from Amnesty International says today.

A wealth of case studies published by the human rights group paints a horrifying picture of children at war. Press-ganged by thugs, often after seeing parents and relatives murdered, they are thrown into combat. The boys may be stoked up by drugs and alcohol; girls, invariably, are forced to provide sexual services to their masters.

The reasons for the growing involvement of children in conflict are several. One is the changing nature of war, in which conflict between states with regular armies has become a rarity replaced by dirty civil wars within states, which invariably drag in the civilian population, and continue for years, usually over much the same territory. Uganda, Sierra Leone, and Kurdistan are but a few recent examples.

Another, according to Amnesty, is the use of lighter automatic weapons. "Once guns were simply too heavy," said Rachel Brett, a co-author of the report who has worked for the United Nations and leading human rights groups on the problem, "but these days a child can use such weapons as effectively as an adult."

For commanders, semi- or untrained children are expendable too - human fodder for clearing minefields, unencumbered by wives, husbands or children of their own. Most chilling of all perhaps, they can be very good at the job. "Once inhibitions are broken, children are less cautious, and become highly effective killers and torturers," Ms Brett said

The report is being published to coincide with the start of a new bid in Geneva to secure a UN protocol that would ban the use of child soldiers and raise the legal minimum age of recruitment from 15 to 18. Forty-four countries recruit under-18s for military service, but examples of children in conflict are mainly in Africa and Asia, Amnesty said.

"In societies where official age records may be incomplete, it is often easy for a 12- or 13-year-old to pass for 15. It would, however, be another matter altogether for a 12- or 13-year-old to pass for 18. With some 300,000 children currently participating in ongoing armed conflicts, practical measures are needed," the report said.

Although the new protocol would be voluntary, it will pose special problems for the United States and above all Britain, which operates a minimum military enlistment age of 16, and which relies on under-18-year-olds for one-third of army recruits. Under-18s are no longer sent to the front line, but there is no sign of an increase in the recruitment age.

A serious difficulty is how to persuade rebel and opposition groups to sign an accord being negotiated by governments - in some cases governments they are fighting. Here Amnesty and other human rights groups are pinning their hopes on the future International Criminal Court, whose authority will cover anyone committing war crimes.