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(New York) — International donors gathering at the United Nations this week can best help Liberia by pledging funds to rehabilitate its tens of thousands of child soldiers, Human Rights Watch said in a new report released today.

The 43-page report, “How to Fight, How to Kill: Child Soldiers in Liberia,” documents how more than 15,000 child soldiers fought on all sides of the Liberian civil war, and that many units were composed primarily of children. The report argues that establishing a firm peace in the West African nation will depend on the successful reintegration of child soldiers into civil society.

“Much of the Liberian civil war consisted of children shooting and killing other children,” said Tony Tate, Africa researcher in the Children's Rights Division at Human Rights Watch. “The fragile peace in Liberia today cannot be solidified unless they are disarmed and rehabilitated.”

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell and the U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will co-chair an international reconstruction conference on Liberia at the United Nations in New York on February 5 and 6. Human Rights Watch urged governments to pledge funds to assist all children affected by the conflict, and specifically to fully fund a planned program to demobilize and reintegrate former child soldiers.

The Human Rights Watch report details the many abuses committed against child soldiers and the violations that children were forced to commit against civilians—as described by the children themselves. These children, who were often victims of abuse, became fierce fighters in Liberia’s civil war. Many were beaten upon recruitment and given scant training before being sent to the frontlines. Some were also used as porters and laborers charged with looting from the civilian population.

Both the government and the two opposition forces, the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), used child soldiers. The use of child soldiers under the age of 15 is a violation of the Geneva Conventions. Under the International Criminal Court’s statute, which Liberia ratified in October, it is also a war crime.

“Boys and girls as young as nine were forcibly recruited by all the factions,” said Tate. “The use and abuse of child soldiers by the fighting forces was a deliberate policy on the part of the highest levels of leadership.”

Girl soldiers were widely used by all sides in Liberia and given the same responsibilities as boys. In addition, girl soldiers suffered rape and sexual assault, sometimes over periods of several years. One girl, aged 14 at the time of her abduction, told Human Rights Watch about the multiple rapes she endured.

Warring parties used child soldiers throughout Liberia’s civil war, but recruited children in record numbers when fighting broke out again in 2000. While many children have been released since fighting ended in August, some children are still attached to the armed forces.

Many of the children who fought in the war hope to return to school but are unable to pay for fees and other costs related to education. Although the Liberian government has promised universal primary education, Human Rights Watch emphasized that international financial assistance is needed to make schooling available to all Liberians.

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