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(New York) - Child soldiers recruited by the Yemeni army are now being used by a breakaway unit to protect anti-government protesters, Human Rights Watch said today. The United States and other governments should call for an immediate end to the use of children as soldiers or in other security forces, whether for the Yemeni government or the opposition.

Human Rights Watch has encountered dozens of armed soldiers who appeared to be younger than 18 years old in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, since February 2011, when protesters began demonstrating against President Ali Abdullah Saleh. On April 12 Human Rights Watch interviewed 20 soldiers in Sanaa who gave their ages as 14, 15, and 16, and said they had been serving in the army for one to two years. All were members of the Yemeni army's First Armored Division, whose commander, Gen. Ali Muhsin, defected to the opposition in March and has deployed his troops to protect anti-government protesters.

"The Yemeni government has for too long placed children at grave risk by deploying child soldiers on the field of battle," said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. "President Saleh's opponents should not perpetuate the problem by using children for security on the field of protest."

The 20 child soldiers told Human Rights Watch they had been recruited to fight in the government's intermittent conflict with Huthi rebels in northern Yemen. Some of the children said they had initially fought in a pro-government militia but were subsequently transferred to the First Armored Division, which led the campaign against the Huthis. Each of the child soldiers carried an AK-47 assault rifle and a handgun and wore a First Armored Division uniform.

In separate interviews, six officers from the First Armored Division told Human Rights Watch that the unit allows recruitment of 15-year-olds and occasionally makes "exceptions" by recruiting younger children.

The government responded to the popular uprising that began in February by deploying military units. On March 21, three days after government forces stood by as assailants shot dead dozens of peaceful protesters in Sanaa, General Muhsin defected to the opposition along with his division. Since then, Mushin has positioned his troops to protect anti-government protesters in the capital from further attacks by government forces and loyalists.

This use of children to provide armed security places them at grave risk. The Convention on the Rights of the Child recognizes the right of children to be protected from performing any work that is likely to be harmful to their health or their development.

Human Rights Watch has documented the Yemeni army's use of child soldiers in its fight against the Huthis. Recruiting children under age 15 to serve in the armed forces is a war crime. The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which Yemen ratified in 2007, establishes 18 as the minimum age for any conscription, forced recruitment, or direct participation in hostilities.

On April 12 Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Open Society Foundations, and World Vision wrote to US President Barack Obama criticizing the administration's failure to secure progress in ending the use of child soldiers by Yemen and three other governments receiving US military aid - the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, and Sudan. Obama in October 2010 signed a waiver allowing those four countries to continue receiving military assistance despite their use of child soldiers, in violation of the US Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008. That law requires the US to withhold certain types of military assistance from countries that recruit or use child soldiers in government forces, or government-supported paramilitaries or militias, in violation of international standards.

Human Rights Watch urged the US to suspend military assistance to Yemen immediately unless the Yemeni government agrees to negotiate an action plan with the United Nations to end the use of child soldiers and to allow a visit by the UN's Special Representative on children and armed conflict.  The US approved more than $168 million in military assistance to Yemen last year, of which an estimated $35 million would be prohibited under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act.

Human Rights Watch has also called on donor governments to suspend military assistance to Yemen until government security forces and loyalists stop assaulting peaceful protesters and authorities conduct credible investigations into the attacks, in which at least 87 people have died since mid-February.

"Donor governments should make sure their weapons and ammunition are not being used against peaceful protesters, and that children aren't doing the shooting and dying," Stork said. "The donors should be pressing the government and opposition to get the guns out of children's hands."

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