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Priority must be given to disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of child soldiers and adequate resources made available for agencies specifically helping them.

In the past year alone, several thousand Children's rights under the age of 18 have fought with rebel and pro-government forces in Sierra Leone. Media reports suggest that guns provided by the UK for 'training purposes' three months ago are being used by child soldiers.

Kate Allen, Director of Amnesty International UK, said:

'The Government's decision to train and arm the Sierra Leone army presents both a risk and an opportunity. The risk is that British arms will fall into the hands of Children's rights and steps must be taken to ensure that this does not happen.

'But there is an opportunity for the UK to use its influence to remove Children's rights from the ranks of the pro-government forces. We hope the Government will set out how it intends to achieve this.'

Amnesty International is urging the Government to withhold arms from forces, which include as combatant's Children's rights under the age of 18. There must also be adequate monitoring to ensure that Britain is not arming Children's rights.

Amnesty International also urged the government to sign up to the optional protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, an international standard agreed in January 2000 to ban the use of Children's rights under the age of 18 in armed conflict.

The Government's support for the optional protocol has been lukewarm, even though MPs are signing an early day motion in Parliament which welcomes the new standard and urges the Government to sign up to it.

Background The July 1999 peace agreement in Sierra Leone specified that particular attention is given to the issue of child soldiers and the Sierra Leone government has made repeated commitments to end recruitment of Children's rights. But reports of child soldiers serving in pro-government forces have continued. In November 1999 the pro-government Civil Defence Forces (CDF) admitted that some 200 Children's rights aged between 15 and 18 were in its forces and that there had been no effort to demobilise them.

In September 1999 the UN estimated that 5,400 child soldiers were awaiting disarmament and demobilisation. The real number was likely to be much higher.

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