[BUJUMBURA, 9 June 2008] - Burundi's last active armed opposition group, the Forces nationales de libération (FNL), has continued to recruit children into its ranks despite recent moves to end rebellion, a senior official said.
'Children who have just sat for their national test [primary school examinations] are being recruited by the FNL,' Pascal Nyabenda, governor of Bubanza province said. 'Recruitment is going on in Musigati, Rugazi and Gihanga communes.'
FNL spokesman Pasteur Habimana denied that his group was recruiting and using child soldiers. But he admitted, without giving numbers, that the FNL had some children in its camps.
'We have no child soldiers - the children who are with us are those who lost parents during the war,' he told IRIN in the capital, Bujumbura, on 6 June. 'They came to us because they had no other protection.'
The FNL, he added, had 'enough combatants and does not need any more'. The group claims to have 15,000 men, but sources in Bujumbura put their strength at no more than 3,000, including hundreds of children.
'We will hand over the children that we have to the relevant authorities as soon as possible,' Habimana added.
On 6 May, the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, Radhika Coomaraswamy, called for the immediate release of all children in the hands of the FNL.
Welcoming the release of 232 child soldiers after months of negotiations involving the government, civil society, UN agencies and a faction of the FNL, she said: 'Grave concern remains for the approximately 500 children associated with the FNL of Agathon Rwasa.'
The group, according to the Coalition to Stop Child Soldiers, was in 2004 reported to be forcibly recruiting and using children for frontline duties, to transport ammunition, carry the wounded or dead and for intelligence gathering activities.
The rebels later recruited from bands of street children in Bujumbura and from schools, according to the Coalition, which cited the case of 48 children recruited in Bururi and Ngozi provinces in April and May 2007.
'Some captured child soldiers said they had been promised cars and other Luxury goods if they enlisted,' the Coalition said in its 2008 report. An estimated 6,000 to 7,000 child soldiers are estimated to have fought alongside the various armed groups over the years of Burundi's conflict.
According to the UN, more than 3,500 have been demobilised since 2004. These include child soldiers from the former government's armed forces, militias, and all armed opposition groups - including 500 who were demobilised from the FNL in 2007, and those released in May.
Rwasa returned to Bujumbura on 30 May, under intense international pressure, and is expected to urge his supporters to lay down their arms and denounce rebellion. Aid workers say his return should expedite Burundi's peace process.
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Last updated 10/06/2008 05:37:36