Bamako/Dakar — Children are playing a major role in the Islamists' war effort, say eye-witnesses and human rights groups, who report children are taking an active part in fighting, patrolling, scouting combat zones, and staffing checkpoints.
Oumar Diakité, a resident of Konna in Mopti Region, central Mali, which Islamist groups tried to capture on 11 January prompting intervention by French forces, told IRIN: "Young children have been recruited. These children are sent on scouting missions to collect intelligence... And during clashes, they put these children - often just Koranic students - into the front line." Konna has still not been recaptured, according to French military sources.
Children have been seen staffing checkpoints in areas that came under aerial bombardment from French forces, according to a 15 January Human Rights Watch (HRW) communiqué.
Diakité told IRIN: "They [recruiters] make them believe that if they die they'll go straight to paradise because they are defending God's will. I know a woman who had her son in the ranks. Luckily we were able to find him and save him just in time."
In and around the northern city of Gao the mothers of children who were recruited have been trying to find their children, said residents.
Ibrahim Ag Idbaltanat, director of Malian human rights group TEMEDT, told IRIN back in October 2012 that lots of children in the north were being recruited through Koranic schools, where they were taught how to prepare and dismantle an AK-47.
"These children have no business in being recruited," HRW's senior West Africa researcher, Corinne Dufka, told IRIN. "They should immediately be let go so they can return to their families."
HRW says children as young as 12 have been seen taking active part in fighting, many of them carrying AK-47s or hunting rifles. According to them, Islamic groups Ansar Dine, Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, have recruited, trained and used several hundred children in their forces since April 2012.
Recruitment ramped up a couple of months ago, said Dufka.
In late 2012 children were also joining military training camps in southern Mali, some of them run by retired Malian soldiers, where they prepared to fight Islamist groups in the north. Information is scarce but human rights groups say these militia have not yet been mobilised to fight.
Wounded children in Gao hospital
Children have been seen fighting in Konna - many of them sent from Gao; and manning checkpoints in Douentza, Boré and Gao. Their ages range from 11 to 16. A bus passenger told IRIN: "There were so many children among MUJAO. In Boré it was the children who came into our bus to ask for our papers and check our luggage... and in Douentza there must have been 10 of them under 18, the youngest was about 11."
Witnesses in Gao hospital told HRW they had seen wounded children there receiving treatment. HRW has also received reports of children being removed from hospitals to be treated in Islamist camps
"These Islamist groups have no business recruiting children into their ranks, much less putting them on the front line," said Dufka.
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]