UN: 'Al-Shabaab' recruiting children in Mozambique
NAIROBI, Kenya - The United Nations Children Fund [UNICEF] has accused Islamist insurgents in Mozambique of recruiting children in Cabo Delgado, an oil-rich province in the northern part of the country, which has been causing havoc for a couple of months.
In a statement, UNICEF said it had received numerous reports that the group, commonly known as "Al-Shabaab", has been recruiting underage children purposely to fight government soldiers. The group is not related to Somalia's Al-Shabaab.
The UN agency said the group is also engaging in illegal activities such as sexual violence against girls and young girls, some of who have now been forced into early marriage.
A report compiled by the Human Rights Watch noted that the boys, some as young as 12, are being trained in bases across Cabo Delgado and forced to fight alongside adults against government forces.
James Elder, who is the UNICEF spokesperson said there is no accurate count of the number of children that have been recruited, but it is believed to be in the thousands. According to him, the group has never released captured children.
"The recruitment and use of children by armed groups destroy families and communities," Elder said. "Children are exposed to incomprehensible levels of violence, they lose their families, they lose their safety, they lose their ability to go to school. And, of course, the recruitment and use of children is a grave violation of international law."
According to him, the recruitment of child soldiers has been going on since al-Shabab and other armed groups attacked Cabo Delgado in March. So far, dozens of people have been killed by the group as over 50,000 got displaced from their homes.
A fortnight ago, Elder said, UNICEF signed an important Memorandum of Understanding with the Mozambican defense forces which spelled out what government forces should do when they encounter children with armed groups.
"So that training is very, very important so that they know to treat children as children and as victims and then immediately get the support of organizations like UNICEF," Elder said. "And that can be everything from help to psychosocial support. Those early stages of support for a child who is being recruited, whether as a helper, whether as someone armed, is absolutely critical."
Government soldiers have been struggling to dislodge the group, which apart from being called Al-Shabaab, also bears names such as Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama'a [ASWJ], a Sufi militia also with origin in Somalia. Apparently, the group is not affiliated with any of those Somali groups.