The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) said yesterday that it had discharged the group of boys and girls under 17 years of age over the past six months, and pledged to rid its ranks of all children under 18 by the end of the year.
The LTTE said it hoped the work done by its Child Protection Authority "will convince people of the determination of the LTTE to. bring the minimum age of recruitment into the LTTE up to international standards by the end of 2007".
"We welcome the LTTE commitment to release the children but we also note they still have many more children in their ranks," said UNICEF spokesman Gordon Weiss. "Till all the underage children are released, the LTTE will not be in accordance with international standards."
He also noted with approval that the LTTE had agreed to release all children under 18 and not only those who were under 17, a cut-off point that the rebels had held out for over a long time.
Conscription of minors
"It speaks volumes for the progress in negotiations with the LTTE that they have accepted that 18 is the internationally accepted standard," said Weiss. "They have also accepted that there is child recruitment and that these children must be released."
The chairman of the National Child Protection Authority (NCPA), Jagath Wellawatte, agreed that the freeing of the latest batch of child combatants was a step forward. "We are very happy that at least some of the child soldiers have been released," he said, adding that the NCPA would want to see verification that this had, indeed, happened.
UNICEF, which has had direct talks with the LTTE on the release of underage soldiers, said at least 1,591 still remained at the end of May. The figure included 506 who are under the age of 18, and 1,085 who were recruited when they were under 18 but who have now passed that age.
Dispute over figures
NCPA chairman Wellawatte questioned whether the number of children released by the LTTE was, in fact, accurate or whether it included child soldiers who had surrendered to the security forces and police in recent months.
The government has in custody some 218 former LTTE child soldiers who had given themselves up. They are in prisons in Jaffna, Pallekelle and Kandy awaiting release to their parents or rehabilitation, he said.
The latest batch of LTTE child soldiers to be set free are from the northern districts, while the release of minors from the east has been delayed by the upsurge in fighting and displacement in recent months, the Tamil Tigers said.
Announcing the discharge, the LTTE said it hoped UNICEF would update its figures to reflect the latest position. The rebels said their release programme had in part been held up by UNICEF's delay in revising its figures.
However, UNICEF said that until the releases were actually verified, the database would not change. There had been several occasions when such announcements could not be authenticated because the information given by the LTTE was insufficient, Weiss said.
"Sometimes, the family and the house is located but the child is not there because he or she has been re-recruited after release," he said.
The international community has long condemned the LTTE's recruitment of minors in conflict-torn areas in the island's north and east to help wage its separatist battle.
Despite pledging to release all underage combatants on several previous occasions, the rebels have been accused by the government and international agencies of stepping up conscription in recent years.