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Child soldiers freed in Sri Lanka

From CNN Correspondent Kasra Naji

Colombo, Sri Lanka
Buddhist monks protest the government's plan to share power with Tamil rebels.

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KILLINOCHI, Sri Lanka (CNN) -- Even as Sri Lankan's Tamil Tiger rebels released the first group of children under an agreement to rid their ranks of child soldiers, reports have emerged saying the rebels have stepped up their recruitment of children.

Rebel and UNICEF representatives on Friday inaugurated a "transit center" in rebel territory as 22 boys and 27 girls played on its grounds, where dormitories have been set up that can house up to 150 children.

The agreement to release the children was forged during talks this year between the rebels and the Sri Lankan government who are attempting to end 20 years of civil war in Sri Lanka.

"UNICEF is still receiving cases of child recruitment in all districts of the North East, and it has to be understood that, if the reintegration of child soldiers is to be successful, then the new recruitment of children has to stop," warned Ted Chaiban, the UNICEF representative in Sri Lanka at the inaugural ceremony.

UNICEF representatives said the rebels' continued recruitment of children is raising doubts about the chances of success of the agreement, but plans to set up two more such centers in the east of the country were continuing.

UNICEF said it has received more 1,150 complaints from parents and that, during the past three months, the number of children enlisted has risen to nearly two per day.

Observers contend the actual numbers are much higher.

Many children are abducted, others simply run away from home and join the rebels, UNICEF representatives said.

The Norwegian-led ceasefire monitors here have reported 300 cases of child recruitment during all of last year.

The rebels deny the ranks of their soldiers include children.

Rebel representatives said Friday the children released to the center wanted to join its soldiers, but were too young.

The rebels announced this year they had stopped recruiting children and released hundreds of them to their parents.

On the grounds of the transit center, rebel representative Sutha Thangan criticized the inaugural ceremony as unnecessary and warned against using the occasion as a propaganda tool against the Tamil Tigers. He said the Tamil Tigers were only giving shelter to children who were victims of the war.

Reasons vary

The 49 children are expected to remain in the center for no more than a month while non-governmental organizations prepare to reunite them with their parents. The centers will be jointly administered by UNICEF and Tamils Rehabilitation Organization, a pro-rebel NGO.

"The transit centers are intended to be a collection point ... where the needs of the children can be assessed in a non-military environment before they are returned to their families," said Chaiban.

Just four children were allowed to talk with journalists Friday.

Under the supervision of rebels, a 17-year-old boy said he had sought to join the rebels to resist the atrocities of the Sri Lankan army.

A girl, 17, said she ran away from home to join the rebels after her sister was raped by army soldiers.

Another girl, 16, said she joined the group because her parents were too poor to provide for her.

At least two of the children said they did not look forward to rejoining their families.

Last week, a mother in a village on the outskirts of the eastern town of Trincomalee told CNN her son was among of a group of children who were bundled into a van and taken from their school.

She added that her 15-year-old son returned home after escaped a rebel camp, but has refused to go back to school.

Earlier this week, supporters of Patriotic National Movement marched in Colombo in the final leg of five-day march, protesting the government's proposed plans to share power with Tamil rebels.

More than 10,000 protesters took part, saying the government's plan amounted to dividing the country and threatened national sovereignty.

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