"While estimates of the number of child soldiers vary greatly, possibly as many as 15,000, these young boys and girls are a priority target group for the humanitarian community and a key element in long-term success of the overall peace process," Ross Mountain, the UN Special Humanitarian Coordinator for Liberia said in a statement on Tuesday.
He called on the Liberian government and both rebel movements to stop using child soldiers immediately.
"Many of these children have never been to school before. Many are severely traumatized by the horrors of war, they have themselves been subjected to abuse, and have virtually no means with which to support themselves outside their existing 'rebel' structures," Mountain said.
"A concerted effort must be made to both reintegrate and equip these children with the necessary skills that will enable them to rebuild their live," he added.
Child soldiers have been used extensively by all warring parties throughout Liberia's 14-year civil war.
The conflict formally ended last month with the negotiation of a new peace agreement, but sporadic clashes continue in the interior.
Last week, the UN Security Council agreed to provide 15,000 peacekeeping troops to restore order and protect a government of national unity that will organise new elections in 2005.
The use of child soldiers began when former President Charles Taylor created a Small Boys Unit as part of his guerrilla force which took up arms against the regime of Samuel Doe in 1989. Many of Taylor's personal bodyguards at that time were young boys of about 10 who had a reputation for being fearless.
According to the Liberian Educational Achievement Foundation (LEAF), a non-profit organisation working to highlight the plight of Liberian child soldiers, 20 percent of all combatants in the first phase of the civil war, which ended with Taylor being elected president in 1997, were under 18-years-old.
"They were among the most brutal fighters; many of them killed, raped, tortured and even practiced cannibalism," LEAF says on its website.
Garmondeh Clinton, executive director of the children's rights group Child Peace Liberia, said over 5,000 child soldiers were demobilised during the brief lull in fighting during the mid-1990s.
But since fighting resumed in earnest in 1999, children have been given weapons and made to fight as never before. UN officials recently estimated that children under 18 comprised up to 70 percent of the rag-tag militia gangs that still cruise the country in battered pickup trucks.
Relief workers said the Liberian government and the two rebel groups, Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) and the Movement for Democracy in Liberia (MODEL), were all big recruiters of children.
Sometimes they joined up as volunteers, but many were recruited by force in raids on schools and camps for displaced people.
Child soldiers have killed, looted and plundered alongside their older comrades. According to Amnesty International, they have also been linked to widespread sexual violence against women and young girls living in camps for displaced people in and around Monrovia.
One government militia commander in Monrovia told IRIN recently that children make the "best and bravest" soldiers on the front line.
"Don't overlook them. They can fight more than we the big people....It hard for them to just retreat," he said.
Tel: +225 22-40-4440
Fax: +225 22-41-9339
[This Item is Delivered to the "Africa-English" Service of the UN's IRIN humanitarian information unit, but may not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. For further information, free subscriptions, or to change your keywords, contact e-mail: Irin@ocha.unon.org or Web: http://www.irinnews.org . If you re-print, copy, archive or re-post this item, please retain this credit and disclaimer. Reposting by commercial sites requires written IRIN permission.]
Copyright (c) UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 2003