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POLITICS: U.N. Grapples With Suicide Attacks by Children

Thalif Deen

UNITED NATIONS, Jan 30 2008 (IPS) - The United Nations is expressing "serious concern" over the growing number of suicide attacks involving children, specifically in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"This is a relatively new phenomenon, and the United Nations has documented several high-profile cases of children involved in attacks," says a new 45-page report on "Children and Armed Conflict" released Wednesday.

Pointing an accusing finger at insurgent groups, including al Qaeda and its affiliated militias in Iraq, and the Taliban in Afghanistan, the study says the United Nations is unable to get any commitments from any of these groups or organisations to end the practice.

Asked for her comments, U.N. Under-Secretary-General Radhika Coomaraswamy, special representative of the secretary-general on children and armed conflict, told IPS that suicide bombings involving children raise a whole host of new issues.

"We are grappling with the problem of how to deal with this phenomenon," she said.

First, are suicide bombers "combatants" in the sense of the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of prisoners of war? Are potential suicide bombers "soldiers" and are these suicide bombers deemed child soldiers? she asked.

"Secondly, one purpose of U.N. Security Council resolution 1612 is to enter into action plans with military commanders and get child soldiers released. But how do we do that with suicide bombers or potential suicide bombers?" she asked.

Thirdly, those using suicide bombers, such as al Qaeda and others, are the least likely to engage in a dialogue with the United Nations about the release of children, as is done with governments and other insurgent groups accused of recruiting child soldiers.

"Is children the issue on which the United Nations could have a dialogue with Taliban etc… and will the countries permit it?" she said.

"We can only have dialogue with the permission of the government," Coomaraswamy told IPS.

Currently, the government of President Hamid Karzai in Kabul discourages the United Nations or any other international organisation from initiating any dialogue with the Taliban.

Last month, two officials, a Briton working for the European Union and an Irish citizen working for the United Nations, were expelled from Afghanistan for holding discussions with the Taliban in violence-hit Helmand Province.

The U.N. study, which will be the subject of a discussion by the Security Council Feb. 12, says there are still about 13 countries where either governments or insurgent groups are using child soldiers: Burundi, Chad, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma (Myanmar), Nepal, the Philippines, Somalia, Sri Lanka, Sudan, Uganda, and more lately, Afghanistan and Central African Republic.

On the positive side Cote d&#39Ivoire has no recent cases of child soldiers, while Sierra Leone and Liberia are no longer on the U.N.&#39s "list of shame" for using child soldiers.

The United Nations is also making "progress" to demobilise children from armed groups in Uganda, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Burma.

Coomaraswamy said there are an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 child soldiers worldwide. At a press briefing Wednesday, she said the United Nations was also increasingly concerned about the implications of the changing nature of warfare for children.

The study says the United Nations remains "disturbed" by reports of children being used to perpetrate attacks and, in some cases, as human shields by the Taliban and other insurgents in Afghanistan.

There have been reports that the Taliban have recruited and used children in their activities, such as suicide attacks.

In February 2007, a boy aged between 12 and 15 years old killed himself and a guard, and injured four civilians in Khost City. Additionally, a 14-year-old boy was caught wearing a suicide vest on his way to assassinate the Khost provincial governor.

In March last year, a 14-year-old boy on a bicycle reportedly detonated his suicide vest on an Iraqi police patrol in central Haditha, killing three policemen.

A new tactic by insurgent groups and militias is also to use children as decoys in suicide car bombings.

In Iraq, the study says, children continue to suffer the most in the ongoing violence.

Providing a list of documented suicide attacks, the report notes that there are as of yet no reliable figures on the number of child casualties, although reports of killing and maiming children are received almost daily.

"Victims of indiscriminate mortar shelling of residential areas or of bomb attacks, the latter often in the form of devastating suicide car bombs, include many children," it says.

Coomaraswamy told reporters the United Nations is also concerned about the attacks on secular schools, particularly in Afghanistan, Iraq and Thailand.

These attacks are motivated primarily by ideology. Between August 2006 and July 2007, there were at least 133 documented incidents of school attacks in Afghanistan, causing the deaths of at least 10.

There have also been deliberate attacks on female students and women teachers, and girls&#39 schools are particularly targeted.

In Afghanistan, insurgents also continue to burn down schools, especially girls&#39 schools, in an effort to intimidate and prevent girls from accessing education.

The U.N. children&#39s agency UNICEF has estimated that at least 30 percent of Iraqi children are not currently attending school.

A particularly disconcerting incident, spelled out in the U.N. report, was the deliberate targeting by armed insurgents of the al-Khulud Secondary Girls School in western Baghdad in January last year, resulting in the deaths of five students and 21 injured.

In May and June last year, there were three attacks in Baqubah, possibly against secular education or schooling for girls.

In Thailand, 73 teachers have been killed and more than 100 schools have been burned down, including 11 schools in June last year alone. The attacks are attributed to "armed elements".

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