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(London) — The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam are waging a campaign in eastern Sri Lanka to abduct former child soldiers for their forces, Human Rights Watch said today. Over the last three weeks, the armed opposition group has intensified efforts to re-recruit child combatants released by Colonel Karuna, a renegade rebel commander defeated by its forces in April.

“The Tamil Tigers are stealing children from their homes to put them on the firing line,” said Tej Thapa, South Asia researcher for Human Rights Watch. “Despite all their promises, they are demonstrating absolute disregard for the most vulnerable part of the population it claims to represent.”

According to the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and local human rights groups, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are forcibly abducting children from their homes and threatening parents who dare resist or complain about the abductions. The armed group is believed to be focusing on abducting small groups of children rather than large groups, so as to slowly rebuild its forces without attracting too much attention. Its members have been going to villages in the Batticaloa district of eastern Sri Lanka, banging on doors, threatening parents with dire consequences in the event of non-compliance, and abducting 8 or 9 children from each village.

Typically these children are transported on motorized rickshaws to the nearby lagoon. To evade army checkpoints, they are sent on boats to the Tigers’ Vaharai camp. Local sources have heard the Tamil Tigers threaten to immediately kill parents who complain or try to get information about their abducted children.

Another method of forced recruitment is through personalized letters to the parents, ordering them to attend meetings where they are addressed by one of the LTTE area leaders in Batticaloa.

For example, at a meeting held on June 21 and 22, an LTTE area leader called Yatharthan told attending parents that they had to turn their children over to the armed group in Thihiliwatai on June 24. According to eyewitness accounts, Yatharthan said children 16 years or older must return to armed service. He reportedly scoffed at the mention of UNICEF protection.

Although some parents have organized themselves in order to resist the LTTE pressure, there is considerable fear of reprisal in small communities with little or no government presence. The Tamil Tigers’ ruthless and unforgiving tactics have terrified parents, children and human rights workers, who have no recourse to real protection from the Sri Lankan government.

The LTTE has had a history of forcibly recruiting children and placing them on the front lines during combat operations. In February 2003, the LTTE pledged to cease all child recruitment, and to investigate and punish commanders found responsible for child recruitment; this pledge was reiterated in April 2004.

“The Tamil Tigers are blatantly violating their obligations under international law and ignoring the efforts of UNICEF to protect these children,” Thapa said. “Children are being used to fill the ranks of the Tigers, while their parents face harsh retribution if they try to prevent it.”

The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which protects children in armed conflict, prohibits the direct use of any child under the age of 18 in armed conflict and prohibits all use of children under 18 by non-state armed groups. Sri Lanka is a party to the protocol, which came into force in February 2002.

Human Rights Watch called on international agencies present in eastern Sri Lanka to increase their monitoring presence in the field in areas where these abductions and intimidations are taking place. Such monitoring is particularly needed in the interior villages and areas under LTTE control, where reports of forced recruitments are much higher than in government-controlled areas.

The Sri Lankan government should declare an amnesty for all child soldiers who have returned home, in order to ensure that they can seek help from state protection agencies, Human Rights Watch said. Of particular concern are those combatants who were children when recruited, but who are now over 18 years of age. This group, which is highly trained and therefore highly valued by the LTTE, falls beyond the protection mandate of UNICEF. An amnesty would enable this vulnerable population to seek government protection and move freely in the country, away from areas of LTTE control.

An amnesty should be accompanied by an immediate issuance of National Identity Cards to all returned former combatants, Human Rights Watch said. LTTE intelligence officers have threatened village government functionaries against issuing identity cards to “deserters” released by Colonel Karuna. Undocumented former soldiers face daunting challenges in protection and reintegration.

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