UNITED NATIONS -- Cheap, light weapons are helping turn children into the most vicious of warriors in many countries, researchers said in a report released Wednesday at the U.N.
More than 300,000 youths under 18 are fighting as soldiers in 34 conflicts, many of them wielding automatic weapons, according to the study commissioned by the Canadian government.
And as weapons become easier to use, forces have become more inclined to put children on the front lines, experts said.
"Children kill because they have the instruments to kill," said retired Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian who commanded U.N. forces during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. "They either kill under duress because they are afraid of others who will kill them, or they have developed a desire to retain the power of the small arms and the weapons they have."
In the hands of frightened youngsters who are sometimes sent into battle drunk or drugged, automatic weapons are used "beyond any semblance of discipline, any semblance of logic, any semblance of humanness," he said.
Africa's wars involve more than 120,000 children, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers said in a separate study last month. Myanmar, also known as Burma, has the world's highest number of child soldiers - 50,000.
In Mozambique, children made up 23% of the ruling FRELIMO party's forces and 18% to 40% of the opposition RENAMO forces during the 16-year civil war that ended in 1992, researchers said. In Angola, the use of child soldiers has kept millions of youngsters out of school and illiterate.
Sometimes, the weapons given to children don't even contain ammunition. But they give youth the power to rob and intimidate their elders - causing deep psychological damage.
In Rwanda, Dallaire said, "The mere presence of a weapon, even a rusty one, created havoc in the villages where they were deployed."
And not all armed children are in war zones, researchers noted.
In Colombia, which accounts for some 58% of the world's firearm killings, armed youth have carried out assassinations, the report said.
In other countries, including the U.S., light weapons are used to arm young drug dealers.
"Some neighborhoods in the United States are just as much war zones," said Rachel Stohl, a senior analyst at the Washington-based Center for Defense Information who wrote the report.
The report urged countries to create an international system for marking and tracking guns - somthing being discussed by negotiators at the U.N. small arms conference. It also called for a crackdown on the sale of guns to regions in conflict.
U.N. peacekeepers should also offer child fighters psychological counseling and programs to teach them how to relate to other children, the report said. Stohl said that former child soldiers are often treated as common refugees despite lagging behind their peers in education and social development.
Copyright 2001 Associated Press