(AFP) – Aug 5, 2012
BAMAKO — Hundreds of children have been forced into armed groups in northern Mali, some serving as soldiers and others used as sex slaves, rights campaigners told reporters Sunday.
"We have several hundred children aged between nine and 17 years old within the ranks of the armed groups including the Islamists who control northern Mali," said Mamoud Lamine Cisse, president of a Malian child rights coalition.
"After investigations, we have corroborating information that these children are used as soldiers, minesweepers, scouts, spies, messengers, look-outs, cooks and sexual slaves in the case of young girls," Cisse told journalists.
The children were mostly from Mali, Senegal and Niger, he said.
The Malian Coalition of Child Rights is a grouping of 78 Malian and international associations.
The Islamists, who have controled the vast desert north of Mali for four months, recently told AFP they were recruiting children of "all ages" throughout the Sahel "to fight in the name of God."
Once seen as one of west Africa's most stable democracies, in just a few months Mali has been split in two and is struggling to rebuild a strong central government.
The crisis erupted when Tuareg rebels in January launched a rebellion in the north pressing for an independent homeland, which swiftly overwhelmed the nation's army.
Angry soldiers launched a coup on March 22, but in the political and security vacuum, the north became easy prey and fell to rebel groups in a matter of days.
The Tuareg rebels have since been completely sidelined by armed jihadist groups linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
The Islamists have enforced strict sharia law, whipping smokers and drinkers and last week stoning an unmarried couple to death.
In the city of Gao on Sunday, residents intervened to prevent their Islamist rulers from chopping off the hand of a thief.
Members of Ansar Dine, another Islamist group, have destroyed ancient Muslim tombs and other World Heritage sites in Timbuktu because they consider them idolatrous.
The International Criminal Court in July launched a preliminary inquiry into the events in Mali.
They were acting upon a request from the embattled interim authorities who allege war crimes including rapes, civilian massacres and use of child soldiers.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres said Friday the five-month conflict had forced 260,000 Malians to flee to neighbouring countries.
"If a political solution is not found the chances of this developing beyond Mali are enormous," he warned.
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