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Child soldiers for Taliban? Unlikely

A UN report last week accusing Afghanistan of using soldiers under 14

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 6, 1999



KABUL, AFGHANISTAN

The Islamic Taliban fighters are easy to spot: They wear dark turbans, grow long thick beards, and roar through the Afghan capital, Kabul, in new-looking, four-wheel-drive vehicles.

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These religious warriors, who control some 90 percent of Afghanistan, are almost exclusively adults, local United Nations and relief officials say.

The point is important, because tensions between the UN and Taliban have been running high. A single line in a report by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which alleged last week that the strict Taliban regime uses child warriors under 14 years old, sparked a firestorm.

The rhetorical battle illustrates the world body's increasingly complex role in Afghanistan, as this nation struggles through its 20th year of war as one of the least developed in the world. For the past year, UN officials have engaged in peace negotiations that have borne little fruit. Last month, the UN Security Council imposed limited sanctions on Afghanistan's de facto rulers for refusing to hand over for trial suspected terrorist Osama bin Laden.

Yet in recent days, UN officials have been locked in a tricky effort to convince the Taliban to allow food and aid supplies across the front line to some 60,000 refugees cut off in "enemy" territory. UN aid is critical for the survival of many Afghans.

The Taliban agreed this weekend to the cross-line mission for convoys of both the UN and the International Committee of the Red Cross. The first convoys were scheduled to move yesterday.

UN and relief workers say the child-warrior issue is a prime example of what the Taliban sees as confusing signals from the world body - and is further proof, to their minds, of outsiders too eager to believe sensational reports.

"There was a high level of anger and frustration from the authorities here," says Erick de Mul, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Afghanistan, who toured front-line Taliban positions north of Kabul to see for himself last week. He says he found no evidence of combatants younger than 21 years of age.

Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar issued an edict almost a year ago against the use of child soldiers, saying it was un-Islamic. Observers with long Afghanistan experience say they rarely see Taliban combatants under 17, and the movement has set up commissions to punish commanders who recruit youths.

A visit by this correspondent to a checkpoint near the front line north of Kabul - now calm, as it has been since heavy summer fighting - revealed only a Taliban soldier in his 30s, who guarded a multiple-rocket launcher.

The Taliban has imposed a strict version of Islamic law that has brought security to much of the country but also bans women from work and school. Mr. Annan has characterized the situation as "massive and systematic violations of human rights" that were turning the country into a "breeding ground for religious extremism" and "terrorism." A UN spokesman in New York said that Annan stuck by the report that includes the mention of child soldiers.