LTTE's soldiers getting younger

COLOMBO, JULY 12. The LTTE has stepped up forcible recruitment of children in areas under its control in northern Sri Lanka after its victory at Elephant Pass, a Tamil human rights group has charged. The only qualification is that the children should be able to hold a gun.

In a chilling report published on Tuesday, the University Teachers for Human Rights (Jaffna) said that the LTTE recruiters did not consider any minimum age. ``All that matters is whether the boy or the girl can carry a gun. Although compulsory training begins at grade 9, those from the lower classes who are bigger made are also asked to join military training.''

The UTHR comprises academics who fled Jaffna when the LTTE took control in 1990. Now based in the Sri Lankan capital, the group, assisted by a network of informants in the north-east, publishes regular reports, which are widely considered reliable, on the situation there.

The child soldiers of the LTTE are the focus of the current report, titled `The Sun God's Children and the Big Lie'. The title is a reference to the LTTE leader, Mr. V. Prabhakaran, who is sometimes referred to by his followers as ``Surya Theivan''.

``The sunrays that do the Sun God's bidding are today mainly children, often 14 or 15 years old, and increasingly girls,'' the report stated. It pointed out that the death rate among child soldiers had shot up with the LTTE and the military increasingly relying on mortar and artillery fire.

Of 15 students from one school in Mallavi who joined the LTTE between April 1999 and early 2000, nine have died. The bodies of six were brought back to the school for display. ``This is intended to give the dead an aura of heroism and to make the others guilty about not joining,'' the report said.

After the Elephant Pass battle in which cadres as young as 15 were killed, their mangled bodies were sent back to their parents in sealed coffins. More than 100 were grievously wounded by shells.

The majority of recent recruits are girls, and those who resist are punished. The report states how five girls who wanted to go home after spending a night in a women's camp were ``taken to a room, stripped, mercilessly assaulted and pushed onto the ground. They were then trampled upon. The punitive violence was administered by senior girls.'' Three of the girls managed to escape after walking through jungles for over 24 hours. The father of one girl said he would fight the LTTE till his death to keep his daughter at home.

The report said that after the attack on Elephant Pass, the LTTE had instructed schools not to teach. Three days a week, all children above 14 years are required to present themselves for military training. School authorities have been asked to enforce attendance at the training sessions.

The LTTE had given a commitment to the U.N. Special Envoy, Mr. Olara Otunnu, in 1998 that it would not recruit youth below 17 and not use those below 18 in combat. But the UTHR report makes it clear the commitment has long been forgotten.

The report said it was an indication of the successful repression through terror of the Tamil people by the LTTE that parents and teachers no longer protested the recruitment of children.

It said the ``Unceasing Waves'' operation had claimed the lives of 1,500 LTTE cadre and left many more injured. Now, the problem of the rebel group was not money or weapons, but recruits. ``The LTTE's immediate need to take Jaffna is (for) flesh and muscle.''

Capturing Jaffna would increase the LTTE's population base and give it a bigger resource pool for recruitment, and thus enabled, it would make a thrust to recapture the East.

``Now that taking Jaffna has proved more difficult, he (Mr. Prabhakaran) has to go for broke in the Vanni, break every sense of community, all human values and all fundamental loyalties to make everyone who can physically carry a gun a fighter,'' the report said.

Besides school children, all civilians below 45 are also required to undergo military training and are posted in ``border'' areas. Since April, between 30 to 50 such cadres are said to have been killed. ``They were no more than civilians carrying guns under duress. Their families were totally unprepared for their deaths.''