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Somali children reportedly recruited by extremists

The United Nations has warned that children are being targeted for recruitment by the Somali militant group who are working to overthrow the country’s unstable government.

Somali boys read the Koran at a refugee camp in Mogadishu
Somali boys read the Koran at a refugee camp in Mogadishu
Image: AP/Press Association Images

AS FAMINE RAVAGES Somalia, al-Shabab militants continue to deny aid agencies access to large parts of the country – effectively sentencing thousands to death.

The Red Cross is the only organisation being allowed to distribute food in territories controlled by the anti-government group.

The extent of what is being concealed by al-Shabab may now be coming to light, as the United Nations warns that the organisation could be conscripting children, reports the BBC.

Al-Shabab controls most of south and central Somalia, including two large regions worst affected by the famine.

Refugee reports

Workers at refugee camps in Ethiopia say Somalis are telling them they have had to leave, for their childrens’ safety.

They were only able to stay at home as long as they had food or animals to give to the extremists – but once they ran out, Mothers say they became afraid their children would be demanded next.

Last month, rights group Amnesty International accused al-Shabab of systemically recruiting children into its ranks, as reported by South Africa’s Times Live.

Refugees told Amnesty that children as young as eight have been recruited.

However, Amnesty also noted that Somalia’s transitional government is on a UN “list of shame” for recruiting, using, killing and maiming children in armed conflict.

It comes as the UN warns that the situation could become “simply unbearable” in the coming weeks if Somalis continue to abandon their homes in those areas.

Estimates say over 11 million people across East Africa need food aid because of a long-running drought exacerbated by al-Shabab’s refusal to allow many humanitarian organizations to deliver aid.

In the past two months some 220,000 people have fled toward the Somali capital of Mogadishu and across the borders to Kenya and Ethiopia, where refugee camps are straining under the pressure of new arrivals.

Paid to stay home

Some UN agencies are now pursuing the controversial policy of paying Somalis to stay at home on their farms.

Once people leave their farms, they become dependent on aid for a very long time, and that’s too costly to support.

Cash payments are mired in controversy, because the money can end up in the hands of militant groups like al-Shabab.

African Union

African Union troops are trying to defend the country’s fragile government from attacks by al-Shabab.

The islamists only withdrew from their bases in the country’s capital of Mogadishu last weekend, finally allowing the AU access to the city.

The AU seems to be gaining ground in the country, which hasn’t had a clear government since the 90s.

When they arrived in 2008, they lost nearly 100  soldiers to bomb attacks in just the first year – in the past year, they haven’t lost any.

Covert American support

Part of their improved success could be down to an American company who’ve been coaching the soldiers, mainly from Uganda and Burundi, at a cost so far of $12.5 million.

Aside from covert raids by special operations forces, the US government has not been involved militarily in Somalia since the intervention almost two decades ago that culminated in the Black Hawk Down battle.

But the US State Department, along with the United Nations, are behind the funding of Washington-based company, Bancroft Global Development.

Bancroft specialises in military training from bomb disposal to sniper training.

The company objects to its personnel being described as mercenaries – they prefer ‘non-governmental organisation’.

Irish international aid agency GOAL has meanwhile reiterated its call to the UN  to deploy peacekeepers into the lawless region.

It comes as the United Nations warns that famine is expected to spread to all regions of south Somalia in the next four to six weeks, unless further aid can be delivered.

- Additional reporting by AP

Read also World Food Programme begins airlifting food to East Africa>

Read also 29,000 children ‘killed by Somalia famine’>

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