NAIROBI, Kenya – NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Somalia's president has ordered an investigation into reports that the Somali army is recruiting children in its fight against powerful Islamic insurgents, a decision welcomed by rights groups on Thursday.
The recruitment of child fighters in Somalia is on the rise. The country's continuous violence appears to have increased recruiting efforts of young fighters, minors who can easily be indoctrinated.
Human rights groups and media outlets have been reporting about the existence of child soldiers in Somalia for years. The Associated Press reported in May that militants are increasing their use of the child soldiers, but that government forces also have minors in their ranks. The New York Times reported this week that the Somali government is using child soldiers and noted that the military is funded in part by the United States.
Somali President Sheik Sharif Sheik Ahmed said late Wednesday that he had ordered his army chief to conduct an investigation of the use of child soldiers and report back to him in a month.
"The president also instructed the army to demobilize any underage recruits without delay," a government statement said.
A Somali human rights group estimated that thousands of child soldiers are used by both the government and Islamist militias like al-Shabab. Ali Yasin Gedi of Elman Peace and Human Rights Center welcomed the government's announcement.
"It is a victory for us, human rights groups, that called time and time again to demobilize children," said Gedi. "Our children have borne the burden of the conflict in this country far too long."
Ahmed, in his announcement, also asked the international community to provide his cash-strapped government with the resources it needs to deal with about 100,000 armed militiamen of all ages in the country.
Ahmed accused al-Shabab militants of "intentionally and many times forcefully" enlisting underage children. Children make up the bulk of Somalia's estimated 7.5 million residents.
Gedi said al-Shabab's recruitment of children may partly stem from a lack of willing adults alienated by the group's extremist views. But the government is also so desperate for fighters that it has been reluctant to kick out gun-carrying children from its ranks.
"The only chance open for the children in Somalia is to join the army — be they the government's or its enemies'," Gedi said. "The children get excited whenever recruitment opportunities beckons, because they don't have any other opportunities."
The U.N. believes that children as young as nine are being targeted and often taken through force or deception.
On Wednesday, the Security Council approved a presidential statement urging the U.N.'s most powerful body to consider tough measures — including possible sanctions — against countries and insurgent groups that recruit child soldiers and violate international law on the rights and protection of children in armed conflicts.
In a recent report, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon accused both Somalia's government and its enemy, al-Shabab Islamist militants, of trying to maim or kill children by putting them in the line of fire.
Somalia has not had a functioning government since clan-based warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other, sinking the Horn of Africa nation into chaos.