Nepal rebels recruit children as peace nears
KHAWAR, Nepal, Nov 20: Two of Lali Basnet's teenage daughters left home last week to join Nepal's Maoist rebel army.
The youngest, just 14 years old, was sent home because she was too young. Her 15-year-old sister was accepted, one of thousands recruited into rebel ranks days before a peace deal is supposed to be signed in a bid to end a decade-long civil war.
''They were not supporters of the Maoists but they went because they were told they would get a job,'' the 40-year-old mother of six said, sitting on a log close to their thatched hut in Nepal's southern plains.
Local human rights group Insec says the Maoists have recruited at least 2,500 people in the past week in an apparent last-ditch bid to boost their numbers. More than half were children, said the group's Kundan Aryal.
As the peace deal was being negotiated the Maoists claimed to have 35,000 fighters. But that was almost certainly bluster, political analysts say. The rebels have had to move fast as they prepare to gather in 28 UN-supervised camps this week as part of the peace process.
''They don't have the numbers, so to maintain their credibility and show those numbers they are recruiting,'' said Bed Prasad Bhattarai of the National Human Rights Commission in the town of Nepalgunj, 500 km west of Kathmandu.
He said he had seen at least 500 new recruits in just one location, in the grounds of a primary school in Pidari village.
In nearby Khawar, Basnet said her daughters were told they would get 5,000 rupees a month () and ultimately a job in a new national army once the rebels merge with the state military.
For a family that can scarcely feed itself, it was an attractive offer. ''My daughters asked us and we agreed they should go,'' she said.
Sher Bahadur Khadka also agreed that his 19-year-old brother and 18-year-old sister should go.
''They were studying but we couldn't afford to pay their school fees,'' he said. ''We were looking for work as labourers but then we heard someone was offering a job.'' Maoist chief Prachanda told Reuters that any new recruits would not be counted in the final figures for the rebel People's Liberation Army (PLA) he hopes will be integrated into a new national army.
That would disappoint many of the families whose children have just left home.
UN peace envoy Ian Martin said he was very concerned about reports children were being recruited in the past week.
Officially, Maoists say you have to be 17 to join the PLA.
But in a series of trips to Nepal's countryside over the past year and a half, Reuters has frequently been told that children were accepted into rebel ranks. Many rebels have freely admitted they were 15 when they joined.
Younger children also appear to play a role in the movement. Last year, Reuters saw children around 12 years of age carrying weapons as part of a village militia.
''This is inhuman and a crime,'' said Insec's Aryal. ''They are definitely not committed to child rights.'' Nepal's government said child recruitment violated a code of conduct agreed by the two sides as part of a ceasefire in May.
Bhattarai, of the human rights commission, said it would undermine the Maoist's credibility and ultimately make them even less popular.