(New York) - Human Rights Watch today called on all parties to the civil war in Sierra Leone not to recruit children as soldiers and to demobilize all children in their ranks. As the parties prepare to enter peace negotiations to end the eight year-long civil war, the human rights organization urged special attention to the thousands of children who have been used as combatants in the conflict.

Human Rights Watch, an international monitoring agency, made the calls in letters to the leaders of the Sierra Leonean government and rebels.

The Government of President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah has made repeated international commitments to stop recruiting and to demobilize all children in pro-government armed forces, including the Kamajor civil defense forces. In preparation for the departure of ECOMOG peacekeeping forces, the Sierra Leone government is now recruiting and training its own national army.

Human Rights Watch commended the government for restricting its recent mobilization of new recruits to individuals of age eighteen and above. "We're pleased to see that the government is keeping its promise by refraining from enlisting children into its new army," said Peter Takirambudde, Executive Director for the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch. "We urge the government to ensure that this policy is respected at all levels."

Human Rights Watch expressed deep concern, however, that large numbers of children in Bo and Kenema have reportedly been recruited by the Kamajor civil defense force. "These children are being used as combatants, in direct violation of international law," said Jo Becker, Children's Rights Advocacy Director for Human Rights Watch. "The government has a responsibility to ensure that the Kamajors do not recruit children for military service."

The rebel Revolutionary United Front (RUF) has recruited thousands of child soldiers into its ranks during its campaign to topple the government. UNICEF reports that almost 3000 children have been reported missing or abducted since the rebels' January offensive and are presumed to have been abducted by the rebels. Recent testimonies collected by Human Rights Watch indicate that some of these children are currently undergoing military training.

"We urge the RUF to immediately end its recruitment of children, and to release all children currently in its ranks," said Becker. She noted that 51 children abductees were freed by the RUF during the month of March, but said that "releasing such small numbers of children is simply not adequate. All of the children in RUF forces must be demobilized immediately."

Last week, more than 250 representatives of Governments and civil society from fifty countries participated in the African conference on the use of child soldiers, held in Maputo, Mozambique. On April 22, participants adopted a declaration condemning the use of any child under the age of eighteen by any armed force or armed group, and calling upon all African states to ensure that children are not recruited into armed forces or militia forces under their jurisdiction, and that all child combatants are demobilized, rehabilitated, and reintegrated into society.

Human Rights Watch, together with other leading international nongovernmental organizations, is part of the International Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. The coalition seeks to strengthen international standards to protect children from military recruitment and use in armed conflict and to raise the minimum age for military recruitment and participation in armed conflict from 15, set by existing international law, to 18.