MILF says US child soldier law not relevant to them

Agence France-Presse

Posted at Oct 08 2008 05:18 PM | Updated as of Oct 09 2008 01:18 AM

Muslim separatist rebels in the Philippines on Wednesday said a new American law against recruiters of child soldiers has no bearing on them.

The Child Soldiers Accountability Act, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush last week, makes it a federal crime for rebel groups in the Philippines and 16 other countries to recruit or to use soldiers under the age of 15.

The Act allows the United States to prosecute any individual on US soil for the offense, even if the children were recruited or served as soldiers outside its territory.

The New York-based rights group Human Rights Watch said the law covers groups such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which has been engaged in intense guerrilla warfare since August following the collapse of a peace agreement.

President Arroyo has launched a massive military offensive against the rebels and government troops have recovered evidence linking the MILF with child combatants.

"We could hear children's voices when they are hit by our troops," one army intelligence official told AFP last month, after pictures of children in training in a remote rebel camp were declassified.

The US law imposes penalties of up to 20 years, or life in prison if recruiters' action results in a child's death.

MILF spokesman Eid Kabalu said the new US law "should have no bearing" on his group, saying the rebellion was an internal matter to the Philippines.

"Also, we don't recruit minors. There is no policy from the MILF leadership allowing any of its commanders to use children in battle," Kabalu told AFP.

He however welcomed the US law for giving a "baseline age" for what could be considered child warriors.

The 12,000-strong MILF has been waging a separatist rebellion for a Muslim homeland in southern Mindanao island since 1978.