Colombia’s largest rebel group has handed over eight child soldiers to an international humanitarian mission as part of a deal to end decades of bloody fighting. The International Red Cross said in a statement Saturday the minors were in good health and are being transported to a temporary shelter under the supervision of the United Nations Children’s Fund.
The humanitarian gesture comes in the wake of a deal reached last month between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the government to end a half century of hostilities. Out of respect for the minors’ privacy, the Red Cross didn’t say where the handover took place or provide their ages.
The FARC has long faced accusations of forcing minors to join its ranks, a human rights violation, as a way to demonstrate its military strength in rural areas where it is dominant. Between 1975 and 2014 almost 12,000 minors are believed to have been illegally recruited, Colombia’s chief prosecutor says.
But as peace talks in Cuba advanced last year, the rebels announced they were raising from 15 to 17 the minimum age for recruits and in May it agreed to let all guerrillas under the age of 18 to leave its jungle camps. The handover didn’t materialize until now because of FARC leaders’ security concerns that the underage soldiers would be interrogated by authorities and help them locate and attack rebel camps.
It’s unclear how many of the FARC’s estimated 7,000 fighters are minors. The chief rebel negotiator known by his alias Ivan Marquez said in May that 21 soldiers under the age of 15 live in guerrilla camps, but some government officials have put the number closer to 200.
A visit to a rebel camp last month by Associated Press journalists found several guerrillas who acknowledged joining the rebel group as children, some as young as 14. But all said they had done so by their own free will while fleeing poverty and domestic violence.
Authorities say more minors could be handed over before the FARC begins to demobilize as part of the peace deal. The government has vowed to reunite the children with their families when possible and provide them with psychological assistance to ease their transition back to civilian life.