The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has criticized foreign-backed militants in Syria for enlisting young boys to serve as fighters, guards and lookouts in clashes against government forces.
“Children as young as 14 have served in at least three opposition brigades, transporting weapons and supplies and acting as lookouts,” the New York-based international non-governmental organization said on Thursday.
“Children as young as 16 have carried arms and taken combat roles against government forces,” it added.
The HRW also noted that it interviewed five boys – aged between 14 and 16 – who said they had worked with the militants in the southern province of Deraa, the central Homs province and on the northern border with Turkey.
Three of the boys said they had carried weapons and one said he had participated in attack missions.
Two others said they had supported anti-government forces by conducting reconnaissance missions or transporting weapons and supplies.
A 16-year-old boy from the Khalidiyeh district of Homs City told HRW that he had participated in combat missions.
“I used to carry a Kalashnikov… I used to shoot checkpoints,” he said, adding that his battalion gave him combat training.
“They taught us how to shoot, how to dismantle and put together a weapon,” he told HRW.
Another boy, from Homs, said children took on various roles. “If you have a brave heart, they’ll send you to (attack) checkpoints,” he said.
The youngest boy quoted by the rights group was a 14-year-old, who said he transported weapons, food and other supplies for fighters near the Turkish border.
“We would bring bullets and Russiyets (Kalashnikovs). All of the kids were helping like this. We were 10 boys between 14 and 18 years old,” he said.
The International Criminal Court says that conscripting or enlisting children under the age of 15 or using them to participate in combat missions is a war crime.
The United Nations convention on child rights urges world states to ensure that people under 18 are not recruited or used in fighting.
Syria has been experiencing unrest since March 2011.
The Syrian government says that the chaos is being orchestrated from outside the country, and there are reports that a very large number of the insurgents are foreign nationals.