MANILA (AFP) – Three child soldiers recruited by hardline Muslim rebels in the Philippines were among 53 people killed in a five-day military offensive in the restive south, an official said Friday.
Regional spokesman Colonel Dickson Hermoso said the offensive against fighters of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) group in the strife-torn southern island of Mindanao had resulted in the deaths of 52 rebels, including the children, and one soldier.
“They are employing child soldiers with guns and camouflage uniforms. When we encounter them, we cannot discriminate if they are children or not,” he told AFP.
The military offensive came after the main Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), successfully concluded peace talks with government negotiators last week aimed at ending a decades-long insurgency that has killed tens of thousands.
The BIFF is a small group of militants opposed to the peace effort with the MILF, which has carried out many deadly attacks in recent years in a bid to derail the peace process.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino has vowed to crush militants opposed to an imminent peace deal, saying the the army operations were meant to “seriously degrade their abilities to again act as spoilers”.
Hermoso said soldiers and local residents confirmed the three child soldiers, aged between 15 and 17, were among the guerrillas buried soon after their deaths, according to Islamic custom.
“The armed forces is strongly denouncing (the use of child soldiers) and we have communicated this to the government’s Commission on Human Rights and to other organisations to take cognisance of these findings,” Hermoso added.
The website of the UN special representative on children and armed conflict said that it “continued to receive credible reports that the (BIFF) armed group was actively training and providing weapons to children”.
National military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Ramon Zagala said that troops had captured the BIFF’s headquarters as well as their bomb-making factory in remote villages of Mindanao in a bid to prevent the rebels from derailing the peace process with the MILF.
“Our objective is to curb the use of IEDs (improvised explosive devices) so as to protect the people and the community and protect the peace process because by doing (these bombings), they are spoiling the peace process,” he told AFP.
Fighting is likely to end by Saturday as part of an arrangement with the main MILF group, said Zagala.
The MILF had cooperated in the operations against the BIFF by holding back their own forces and not letting the hardliners seek refuge in MILF territory.