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Syria's Kurdish YPG accused of recruiting children for combat from refugees camps

Adem Altan, AFP | Syrian Refugee children go about their daily lives at the refugee camp in Osmaniye, Turkey on December 15, 2015.

Syria's leading Kurdish force is recruiting children from displacement camps in the country's northeast in violation of international law, Human Rights Watch said Friday.

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Thousands of people live in camps scattered across parts of Syria held by the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG), a US ally against the Islamic State group.

The YPG has used child soldiers in the past, according to the United Nations, HRW and other rights groups, and has not put a stop to the practice despite pledging to do so.

"It's especially horrendous that the group is recruiting children from the vulnerable families in displacement camps without their parents' knowledge or even telling them where their children are," said Priyanka Motaparthy, HRW's acting emergencies director.

There was no immediate response from the YPG to an AFP request for comment.

International law prohibits non-state armed factions from recruiting anyone under the age of 18, and enlisting children under 15 is a war crime.

HRW spoke to eight families in three displacement camps in northeastern Syria who said Kurdish militiamen and security forces had encouraged their children to enlist.

The youngest among them was a 13-year-old girl.

"We are poor, so they told my daughter they would give her money and clothes," her mother told HRW. She objected, but her daughter enlisted in the forces and had not been heard from for around a month.

The YPG and the broader US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces have seized large parts of northern Syria from IS after years of fierce fighting that displaced thousands of people.

A YPG-linked political administration runs much of northern Syria with a system that is autonomous from Damascus, complete with its own schools and tax system.

Kurdish authorities also enforce military conscription for those above 18 years of age in areas under their control.

Kurdish forces did not forcibly conscript minors, HRW told AFP, but they barred families from communicating with their children and declined to disclose their location.

Sara Kayyali, a HRW researcher who worked on the report, said that left families "very distressed".

"They had no understanding of where their children were, if they were alive or dead, or being sent to the front line," Kayyali told AFP.

The parents of recruited girls were also afraid that news that their daughter had disappeared would reflect badly on them in their communities, she said.

"This comes in the context of several arbitrary restrictions on freedom of movement -- essentially what seems to be refugees saying they're stuck until they agree to be conscripted," Kayyali said.

HRW earlier this week said autonomous authorities in the north were "unlawfully restricting" the freedom of movement of thousands in displacement camps.

Last year, the UN found 224 cases of child recruitment by the YPG and its female forces, nearly five times the number in 2016. It said the YPG had forcibly abducted the children in at least three cases.

Other armed groups in Syria's seven-year war have also recruited minors.

(AFP)

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