UNICEF saves 60 child soldiers from LTTE

COLOMBO, (AFP) - A UN agency said Thursday that more than 60 children recruited as soldiers by the LTTE have been demobilised following its intervention.

The UN agency for children, UNICEF, said the youngsters were released over a period of one year after it took up the issue with the LTTE.

"The organisation’s efforts have resulted in successful disengagement of over 60 children," UNICEF said in a statement. "However, much more needs to be done."

The LTTE has been accused of deploying a baby brigade despite 1998 assurances to UNICEF’s Special Representative for Children in Armed Conflict Olara Otunnu that no one under 18 years old would be used as a combatant.

A UNICEF spokesman said Otunnu was expected to visit Sri Lanka in August to review the situation with children in the island.

UNICEF officials met with the LTTE members in the rebel-held northern Wanni region recently "to explore further opportunities to protect the rights of children affected by the armed conflict," the agency said.

Last July, UNICEF’s executive director Carol Bellamy accused the Tigers of breaking a pledge and continuing to recruit children, some as young as 10 years old.

She said the UN had failed in its efforts to intervene to stop the LTTE’s recruitment and said Sri Lanka’s decades-long separatist conflict had caused "immense suffering and violations of children’s rights."

Both the international human rights watchdog Amnesty International and the local University Teachers’ for Human Rights have repeatedly accused the Tamil Tigers of stepping up forced conscription of child soldiers despite the truce

An Amnesty team is visiting Sri Lanka and is expected to take up the question of child soldiers with the LTTE.

Local and foreign rights groups have said the LTTE was abducting children and coercing families to send at least one child to join the rebels.