3 child fighters die in clashes with Philippine govt

PHILIPPINES - The military on Friday said three child soldiers recruited by the hardline Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) were among 53 people killed in a week of fighting with government forces and that "two foreign combatants" were helping the rebels, including a Malaysian who is wanted for the 2002 bombing in the Indonesian resort island of Bali that killed 110 people.

Brig. Gen. Eduardo Pangilinan, commander of the Philippine Army's 601st Infantry Brigade, identified the Malaysian militant as Zulkifli bin Hir, who has a $5-million price on his head for the bomb attacks on two nightclubs in Bali.

Pangilinan did not identify the other foreign militants, but said the two foreigners had been fighting alongside BIFF forces since the clashes in Maguindanao province started five days ago.

Col. Dickson Hermoso, spokesperson for the Army's 6th Infantry Division, said that of the 53 bodies of slain BIFF fighters recovered on Friday, three were those of minors.

Hermoso said the children were 15 to 16 years old.

"They were child fighters because they were in fatigue uniforms with BIFF markings and possessed firearms," Hermoso said.

Identified and buried

The slain child combatants, along with some 20 other dead rebels, had been identified with the help of local officials, Hermoso said. They were also buried with traditional Islamic rites by local clerics, he added.

Hermoso said the discovery of the children's bodies proved what the military had been saying all along-that the BIFF was employing child soldiers.

"They are employing child soldiers with guns and camouflage uniforms. When we encounter them, we cannot discriminate if they are children or not," Hermoso said.

He said the BIFF's employment of child soldiers was a clear violation of international war agreements and humanitarian laws.

"We strongly denounce the use of child soldiers. They should be in school and not on the battleground," Hermoso said.

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