Nepal's brutal civil war is exacting a high price on the country's future as Maoist rebels systematically indoctrinate children and recruit them into their bloody struggle to overthrow the royal family. Last month about 4,500 students, most aged between nine and 15, were abducted from schools and forced to attend a Maoist rally where they were encouraged to abandon their education and join the revolution. It was the first event of a planned six-month campaign to recruit children. In a country where 46 per cent of the population is under 18, impressionable young people make a fertile recruiting ground for the Maoist rebels. In the remote district of Rukum, in the heartland of the Maoist insurgency, groups of the children were making their way home along difficult mountain trails. Asked what he thought of the Maoists' message, one 14-year-old boy parroted their propaganda: 'It's for the creation of a new democratic state, to root out the autocracy and smash [King] Gyanendra.' The children, who had been marched for four to five days each way to attend the three-hour rally, said those who were too weak or tired to continue had been left behind. Siddharaj Paneru is a children's rights activist in Musikot, the district headquarters, where what remains of the central government in Rukum is protected by barbed wire and landmines. He says children are sometimes used by the Maoists as human shields and to carry supplies. There are several accounts of children coming under helicopter fire as the Maoists forced them to carry casualties away from attacks on army bases. The Maoists started their campaign to create a communist republic in 1996. Since then more than 12,000 people have died, including 10,000 since the end of 2001 when the fighting intensified. According to a disillusioned former Maoist, now living in the central-government-controlled district headquarters, the Maoists operate about five special 'children's units' in the district, each containing more than 15 nine- to 14-year-olds. Describing how children came to join the Maoists, he said: 'They don't know reality, and basically they are attracted by the 'cultural shows' [the singing and dancing propaganda troupes that tour schools]. And some of the children are very much interested in playing with guns and they imitate the older ones.' Last week, the Maoists used a school building in the village of Magma to hold a campaign meeting. Among the Maoists present were several children, some wearing items of camouflage clothing with their school uniforms. Speaking after the event, Sharun Bantha Magar, the district chief of the Maoist 'people's government', denied that the Maoists recruit child soldiers, but he added, 'If they [children] want to join the militia, according to their will, it is his or her human right'.