Use of child soldiers on the rise
LONDON, England (CNN) -- As West African peacekeepers move into the Liberian capital Monrovia, aid workers are warning of the growing use of children in combat.
The United Nations Children's Fund says both sides in the conflict in Liberia have given weapons to children and that up to 60 percent of the armed fighters are under 18 years old.
The use of child soldiers has been particularly prevalent in Sierra Leone and Liberia, where both troops loyal to President Charles Taylor and the rebel Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) have recruited youngsters.
Soldiers as young as nine are fighting and killing for Liberia, according to Christina Clark of the London-based Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers in Africa. Child soldiers growing up in war-torn societies have been known to commit horrifying acts of violence.
"Often children are more willing to commit atrocities than adults because they are less developed mentally and emotionally," she told CNN. "They are often plied with drugs and alcohol to take away the fear of fighting," she said.
Girls are often forced to provide soldiers with sex.
Nils Kastberg, UNICEF's director of emergency programmes, told CNN: "The armed parties want to use children to beef up their troops and in the case of Liberia, but also elsewhere, they round them up and give them weapons and encourage them. Sometimes they are forcibly abducted. In some instances for example in northern Uganda, the Lord's Resistance Army actually forces children to kill some of their relatives to make sure that they don't go back."
There are no universally accepted guidelines on how to deal with under-aged combatants.
"In some situations, for example in southern Sudan we have been able to demobilize somewhere between 12, 000 to 15,000 child combatants from the SPLA (Sudan People's Liberation Army), with their agreement," said Kastberg.
"But in the midst of the fighting they very often hand out more weapons to children, with very little training, in order to use them as part of firepower but also creating threat and terror."
Aid agencies find that they are left to pick up the pieces once the fighting has stopped.
"The first step obviously is a process of disarmament that takes place in an organized manner. Very often the parties involved in the conflict do not want to recognize that they have been recruiting children so they take away the weapons of the children immediately after a peace agreement or a cease fire and then they do not allow the process of rehabilitation, " Kastberg said.
"We work together with our partners, NGOs and local communities to help get children back to their families and try to re-create their lives -- this requires major investment in education to attract them and to give them an alternative to fighting -- but the scars of war take a long time to get over."
But Clark, from the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers in Africa, said communities needed to learn that the practice was a crime, while the world needed to "raise the scepter of criminal justice" by putting warlords on trial.
"A high-profile case at the International Criminal Court would serve as a deterrent to some of these child recruiters, " she said.