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Rebels recruit tsunami kids

Colombo, Jan. 14 (Reuters): The United Nations Children's Fund (Unicef) has received reports that Tamil Tiger rebels are recruiting children displaced by last month's devastating tsunami as soldiers, and has warned the rebels to stop preying at shelters.

Unicef's Sri Lanka representative Ted Chaiban said he had received reports of three children recruited in the Indian Ocean island's east, where the Tigers control large pockets of jungle. Two had since been re-united with family.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam LTTE relied heavily on child soldiers during their bloody two-decade war for autonomy, an ethnic conflict which has been in limbo for three years thanks to a ceasefire.

'Recruitment... was an issue before the tsunami, it's an issue that continues to be of concern,' Chaiban said today. 'We know of three cases of reported under-age recruitment that took place in the east.'

Two of the children, from the eastern district of Ampara ' the area hardest hit by the tsunami, where around a third of nearly 31,000 Sri Lankan victims perished ' have already been re-united with their family, he said.

But a 15-year-old girl who was in a camp for hundreds of displaced in the eastern rebel stronghold of Batticaloa is still missing.

'She was seen speaking to LTTE cadres. She is no longer in the camp. The grandmother came and reported the case to us,' Chaiban said. 'We will be advocating strongly for her release.' The rebels deny recruiting children, arguing that many youngsters lie about their age to join their cause.

But since 2002, Unicef has been tracking around 1,400 outstanding cases of children reportedly abducted by the rebels, more than 400 in 2004 alone.

On a recent visit to one school-turned-camp for displaced near Kilinochchi, the Tigers' northern administrative nerve-centre, Reuters reporters saw teenage cadres wearing ammunition vests and wielding AK-47s standing guard as a top rebel commander paid a visit.

Military analysts attribute part of the feared rebel group's success against the Sri Lankan state to its child recruitment strategy, saying the young make disciplined soldiers.

'What (the Tigers) said to us is, if you see these cases, bring them to our attention immediately rather than going to the press because we want to be able to resolve them,' Chaiban added.

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