The Philippines' largest Muslim rebel group acknowledged Tuesday that its ranks include child soldiers and said its leaders would meet with United Nations representatives for talks on how to wean the youths from war.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front said it has no official policy to recruit children, who it said only constitute a small part of the guerrilla force that has been waging a bloody rebellion in the country's south.
The front's leaders will meet U.N. Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict Radhika Coomaraswamy near their stronghold in southern Maguindanao province Wednesday to discuss efforts to wean the young militants from war, rebel spokesman Eid Kabalu said.
The 11,000-strong rebel force has been waging a bloody rebellion for self-rule in the south, home of minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines. It has been accused of employing child combatants in violation of international accords but has said it has no policy of recruiting children into its armed force.
Nearly 600 minors have been listed as child soldiers by UNICEF-trained personnel in several rebel strongholds in a program that began last year, but the guerrillas regard some of them as mature under Islam, Kabalu said.
The rebels define the age of maturity under Islam as 13 for girls and 14 for boys, rebel leader Mohagher Iqbal said.
Kabalu, nevertheless, acknowledged that a "minimal number" of underage rebels have volunteered for military training in the past, including those orphaned by war. "In extreme cases, like when not enough men were left to defend (rebel) communities, some of them have engaged in combat," he said.
"We don't deny that we have some of these so-called child soldiers," Kabalu said, but added, "The number is minimal."
Unlike in some African countries, where children have been abducted then forced into training and combat, those in the southern Philippines learn to use weapons and are exposed to fighting because they live in communities where combatants live with their families, he said.
Communist rebels, who have been waging a 42-year Marxist insurgency, have also been accused of employing child soldiers but have said they have a strict policy banning the recruitment of those below 18 years to its armed wing, the New People's Army.