Somali kids 'cannon fodder' in combat
Nairobi - Somalia's al-Qaeda-linked Shabaab rebels have forced children as young as 10 to fight alongside them and serve as "cannon fodder" in battles against government troops, Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday.
The Islamists have also abducted girls to help on the frontline and as wives to rebel fighters, according to a report by the New York-based group.
Parents who try to prevent their children being dragged into the conflict have themselves been targeted and even killed, it added.
"After several weeks of harsh training, al-Shabaab’s child recruits are then sent to the front lines, where some serve as 'cannon fodder' to protect adult fighters," the organisation said.
A 15-year-old boy interviewed for the report said: "Out of all my classmates, about 100 boys, only two of us escaped, the rest were killed."
"Families who try to prevent their children's recruitment or abduction by al-Shabaab, or children who attempt to escape, face severe consequences and even death," the group said.
The Shabaab, which controls much of southern and central Somalia, has been fighting since 2007 to oust the Western-backed Somali government in Mogadishu where it is protected by a contingent of African Union troops.
Mogadishu has in recent years seen some of the worst fighting between the AU-backed Somali government forces and the Islamist insurgents, with civilians bearing the brunt.
"For children in Somalia, nowhere is safe," said Zama Coursen-Neff, HRW's deputy director for children's rights.
"Al-Shabaab’s horrific abuses do not excuse Somalia's Transitional Federal Government's use of children as soldiers," Coursen-Neff added.
Human Rights Watch said government soldiers and allied militia also have children in their ranks and detain children perceived to be Shabaab supporters.
"The TFG should live up to its commitments to stop recruiting and using children as soldiers and punish those who do," Coursen-Neff said.
"Governments backing the TFG should make clear that these abuses won't be tolerated."