Philippine military alleges that Muslim splinter group was using child soldiers in Mindanao
Photographs of child soldiers were among the items left behind as the military overran a camp of hardline Muslim rebels in the southern Philippines, a military commander said yesterday.
Colonel Edgardo Gonzales said that he found the photos when he inspected the 7.5- hectare camp of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) rebel group in the remote town of Shariff Saydona Mustapha.
"There were pictures of children carrying rifles. Some looked like they were 12 years old," Gonzales said as he searched through the abandoned camp about 800km south of Manila. "I believe it was not just for show. I believe those rifles were issued to them."
The military launched an offensive against the BIFF on Monday, just two days after the government successfully concluded peace talks with the main Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The week's fighting left one soldier and at least 53 BIFF members dead, including three child soldiers recruited by the rebels, the military said.
The colonel said he had not personally seen child soldiers but his men had reported encountering them in battles with the group.
The BIFF is a small group of militants opposed to the peace effort with the MILF.
Yesterday, the rebels set off two improvised explosive devices near the camp which wounded six soldiers and six civilians, including two crewmen of a major TV broadcaster.
President Benigno Aquino's spokeswoman Abigail Valte said "the news that they used three child soldiers is shocking, beyond the fact that it violates so many laws, not just ours but international laws."
She condemned the use of minors in combat and said government child support services would address the problem.
A spokesman for the BIFF, Abu Misry, said his group did not use child soldiers, however, and charged that the military was planting or staging the evidence against them.
"Those kids who died were not used as soldiers. They were civilians, killed by [military] airstrikes or by their 105mm howitzers," he said.