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Child soldier problem spreads

About 300,000 child soldiers, some as young as seven, are actively fighting in 41 countries...

About 300,000 child soldiers, some as young as seven, are actively fighting in 41 countries, while 500,000 children are recruited into paramilitary organisations, guerrilla groups and civil militias, according to a report released on Tuesday. A third of them are in Africa.

The report, by the Coalition to stop the use of Child Soldiers, formed by six non-governmental organisations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, is the first effort to investigate 180 countries.

The problem is world-wide: there are child suicide bombers in Sri Lanka and child soldiers in Burma, child guerrilla fighters in Colombia and child fundamentalists in Afghanistan and Sudan.

But the hardest-hit continent is Africa, where more than 120,000 child soldiers are in active combat. "Children are cheap, expendable and easier to condition into fearless killing and unthinking obedience," the report says. Both boys and girls are recruited. "Girls often end up as camp followers and sex slaves, but we have reports of some being forced to go into battle with babies strapped to their backs," Judith Arenas, the Coalition's spokeswoman, said on Tuesday.

The problem of child soldiers is most acute in countries rich in natural resources, such as Sierra Leone, Angola and Sudan. Foreign companies mining diamonds or extracting oil often knowingly use children as armed guards to protect their property, Ms Arenas said. She declined to name the companies involved.

Technology does not help. "The availability of modern light-weight weapons is exacerbating the problem, because even small children can become efficient killers," she said.

Child soldiers are not confined to the developing world, the report emphasises. The UK is "the only European country to send minors routinely into battle" and has "persistently objected to raising the international minimum age for voluntary recruitment and participation in hostilities to 18". There are about 7,000 under-18s in the British armed forces, while paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland are believed to be recruiting teenagers as well.

In the US, nearly 15,000 boys and girls from the age of eight participate in the Young Marines' military-run programmes, which include rifle drills, boot camp and the assigning of ranks. In the recent past, 17-year-olds have served in US operations in the Gulf war, Somalia and Bosnia.

By contrast, South Africa has "played a unique and positive role in spreading the message that using children as soldiers is wrong", Ms Arenas said. "It is one of the very few countries to have changed its legislation, adhering to the highest principles."

There are other encouraging signs in Africa. In Sierra Leone, one of the countries most ravaged by war, in the last month more than 800 children have been released by the Revolutionary United Front rebels as part of the peace process. There are rehabilitation programmes and some children have been reunited with their families.

The Democratic Republic of Congo last week formally ratified the United Nations' optional protocol prohibiting the participation of children under 18 in hostilities and all forced recruitment of children. It is one of only five countries to have turned the UN resolution into national law.