MANILA — The Philippines’ largest Muslim rebel group acknowledged yesterday that its soldiers include children 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 constitute only 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 Radhika Coomaraswamy, UN special representative for children and armed conflict, near their stronghold in southern Maguindanao Province today 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 rebellion for self-rule in the south, home of minority Muslims in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines. It has been accused of employing children as 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 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.