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(Nairobi) – Islamist armed groups occupying northern Mali should immediately release all child soldiers within their ranks and end the military conscription and use ofthose under 18, Human Rights Watch said today. With France carrying out aerial bombardment since January 11, 2013, to block the Islamists from advancing farther south, Human Rights Watch also urged rebel groups to remove children immediately from training bases in or near Islamist military installations.

Witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch by phone since January 8 – when hostilities between the Islamist groups and Malian army intensified – described seeing many children, some as young as 12, taking active part in the fighting. Witnesses also said that children were staffing checkpoints in areas that have come under aerial bombardment by the French or are near active combat zones. The Islamic groups – Ansar Dine, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) – have recruited, trained, and used several hundred children in their forces since occupying Northern Mali in April 2012.

“These Islamist groups have no business recruiting children into their ranks, much less putting them on the front line,” said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch. “These groups seem to be willfully putting scores of children directly in harm’s way. Before the military campaign goes any further, the Islamists should release these children back to their families.”

Three witnesses from Konna described seeing numerous children among the ranks of the Islamists who took over and briefly held the town on January 10. Witnesses in Gao said that they saw children among the reinforcements which left Gao for Konna; mothers looking for their sons who had left Gao to fight; and children wounded during the fight for Konna arriving in Gao.

“The Islamists arrived in about 10 land cruisers,” one witness from Konna said. “After the fighting died down, we went to the entrance of town to see them. I was shocked to see about a dozen children among them, several were only 12 or 13 years old, all armed with big guns, and working alongside the big men.”

Other witnesses observed children inside pickup trucks as they left Gao to reinforce the Islamists as they fought to hold onto Konna. One older man told Human Rights Watch:

On Friday [January 11] at around 4 p.m., I saw six Toyota land cruisers full of fighters leaving for the battle in front of the HQ of the Islamic Police. There were children in two of these – around five in one truck and two in the other. These are our children – what do they know of war? These so-called Islamists are sending our innocents to be slaughtered in the name of Jihad…I ask you, what kind of Islam is this?

Residents travelling in the Gao region in January described seeing children playing a major role in staffing checkpoints. A woman who travelled from Bamako to a small village near Gao on January 8 and 9 described seeing children working the checkpoints in the towns of Boré, Douentza, and Gao.

“There were so many children among MUJAO,” she said. “In Boré it was the children who came into our bus to ask for our papers and check our luggage. There was only one boy over 18 at this checkpoint. And in Douentza, there must have been 10 of them under the age of 18, the youngest was only about 11.”

A trader said he saw about 20 armed child combatants under 16 staffing the checkpoints leading in and out of the towns of Bourem and Ansongo, also in Gao region, on January 11.

The Islamists’ use of children apparently began shortly after they seized control of the north in April and has continued steadily since then. Witnesses have observed the children staffing checkpoints, conducting foot patrols, riding around in patrol vehicles, guarding prisoners, and preparing food in numerous locations controlled by the groups. Children from both Mali and Niger have been recruited. The witnesses have described how within Mali, the Islamists have recruited substantial numbers of boys from small villages and hamlets, particularly those where residents have long practiced Wahhabism, a very conservative form of Islam.

In December, one witness described visiting six small training camps in the Gao region in which a total of several dozen children were being trained on how to use firearms and were undergoing physical fitness training. In several of these places, children were also observed studying the Koran. Some of these training centers were within or adjacent to Islamic military bases.

Three places within the town of Gao where witnesses have observed children being trained in recent months – in and around Camp Firhoun, the “jardin of Njawa”, and the Customs Building (Directionnationale des douanes) – were allegedly targeted for aerial bombardment by the French armed forces on January 12. It is not clear whether children were at the site during the bombing.

The Islamist armed groups, the French and Malian armed forces, and troops from ECOWAS countries should take all the necessary precautions to protect the lives of children, Human Rights Watch said.

Mali is a party to the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflicts, which bans the recruitment and use in hostilities of children under the age of 18 by non-state armed groups. Recruitment of children under age 15 into armed forces for their active use in armed conflict constitutes a war crime under the Rome Statute, which established the International Criminal Court. The prosecutor of the court, Fatou Bensouda, is currently considering whether to open an investigation into crimes committed in Mali after the Malian government referred the situation since January 2012 to the court in July.

“All armed groups should immediately release the child soldiers they recruited and help them to rejoin their families, Dufka said. “Islamist group leaders should know that recruitment and use of child soldiers is a war crime.”

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