- A new report reveals that the government of Côte d'Ivoire is recruiting hundreds of recently demobilised combatants in Liberia, "including scores of children under 18," to fight alongside Ivorian regular forces. Meanwhile, diplomatic sources in Abidjan fear that "another outbreak of violence" may be imminent in Côte d'Ivoire.
The New York-based group Human Rights Watch today released a report documenting the recruiting of demobilised Liberian combatants by Ivorian government troops. Witnesses interviewed in Liberia by the group said that Ivorian army officers and Liberian ex-commanders had intensified their recruitment efforts this month.
Child soldiers who had been demobilised after Liberia's brutal civil war, ex-commanders and community leaders told Human Rights Watch that children had been crossing into Côte d'Ivoire since October to fight with a pro-government militia based around the western cocoa-belt town of Guiglo.
In mid-March, the human rights group interviewed 13 Liberian ex-combatants, including four mid-level commanders and eight children, who consistently identified two Ivorian military officers - one colonel and one sergeant - whom they said coordinated the recruitment of Liberian recruits on behalf of the Ivorian government.
The interviewees said they were offered financial compensation for going to fight in Côte d'Ivoire and indeed were offered money for each additional "recruit" they brought with them. They said money was paid to them by Ivorian army officers once they arrived to the Lima bases, and usually after their "recruit" had spent some time with the militia. Others were offered clothing, jobs and lured by the opportunity of 'paying themselves' through looting.
The interviewees described crossing the border into Côte d'Ivoire in small groups, sometimes accompanied by the Ivorian military sergeant. "I left Liberia to go fight in Côte d'Ivoire in November 2004 and fought for a full week," said a 15-year-old Liberian boy. "My commander and I just came back a few days ago. We came to recruit more boys and take them back for our operation."
- The Ivorian government is talking peace while actively preparing for war using foreign combatants, including demobilised child soldiers from Liberia, commented Peter Takirambudde of Human Rights Watch. "These children endured a horrendous civil war in Liberia. Now they're being manipulated into taking up arms again in neighbouring Côte d'Ivoire," he added.
The revelation comes as the Ivorian government plans to begin peace talks with the northern-based rebels in Pretoria, South Africa, on Sunday. On 3 April, South African President Thabo Mbeki will meet with the parties to the Ivorian conflict as part of an African Union-led peace initiative. "Mbeki needs to urge all parties to stop recruiting or using children for use in the Ivorian conflict," Mr Takirambudde noted.
Human Rights Watch had called on the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court (ICC) - who announced on 20 January that he would send a team to Côte d'Ivoire to lay the groundwork for a possible investigation of war crimes - to include the recruitment and use of child soldiers in the ICC's investigation. Under the statute of the ICC, the recruitment and use of children under the age of 15 is a war crime.
Despite the planned peace talks in Pretoria, observers are noting a "deteriorating security situation" in Abidjan, the country's commercial capital. The British Embassy in Côte d'Ivoire today announced it would suspend all operations in the country from tomorrow, stating the deteriorating security in Abidjan.
All British nationals were urged to leave Côte d'Ivoire "immediately" and the Embassy made it clear that "there will be no repeat of the November 2004 evacuation." British Minister for Africa, Chris Mullin, today said that this decision mainly was "due to the uncertain security situation and our inability to protect staff or British Nationals should there be another outbreak of violence."
- But it also reflects the lack of progress in the peace process, Minister Mullin added. "Until all parties genuinely commit to finding a political solution, there is little point in us remaining. The risk is just too high." This statement by the British Minister comes only three days before the Pretoria talks and reflects the low confidence London has in the South African peace initiative for Côte d'Ivoire.
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