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Child soldiers now in hiding in Somalia after recent fighting

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MOGADISHU, Somalia — Adirisaq Khalid Ahmed was shining shoes in Mogadishu’s labyrinthine marketplace when a soldier from the country’s Islamic movement approached, asking him to join up.
    Ahmed, all of 16 years old, said yes.
    Two months later, the Islamic militia has been driven from power and an unknown number of young soldiers like Ahmed are hiding in and around the capital, some of them wounded and too frightened to leave their homes.
    Interviews with boys as young as 14 who said they fought in the recent weeks of violence in Somalia lend credence to accusations that children have been recruited for battle in this chaotic Horn of Africa nation.
    The government and the Islamic movement have denied recruiting child soldiers, but Christian Balslev-Olesen, UNICEF’s Somalia representative, said Friday that witness accounts suggest otherwise.
    ‘‘I fought with the enemy and was shot,’’ Ahmed told The Associated Press from his home, where his uncle is helping him recover from gunshots to his back and thigh. ‘‘But I am still ready to fight when I recover from my wounds.’’
    The teenager spoke on condition that he not be photographed for fear of reprisals from the government, which with the help of Ethiopian troops drove the Islamist movement from the capital. He also fears Somalis who resent the strict interpretation of Islam that had been imposed by the Islamic movement, known as the Council of Islamic Courts.
    Balslev-Olesen said there was evidence of child soldiers being recruited by both sides in Somalia, ‘‘but we have to say the (Islamic courts) have been much more public in recruiting child soldiers.’’
    He added that it was impossible to estimate the number of young soldiers due to continuing volatility in Somalia. The U.N. estimates 300,000 child soldiers are involved in conflicts worldwide, and child soldiers have fought in many African wars.
    ‘‘If you have young people and children experiencing that kind of fighting and killing, that influences their mentality and thinking and mind set for the rest of their lives,’’ Balslev-Olesen said.
    In a statement Friday, UNICEF and Save the Children demanded ‘‘that all children associated with armed forces or groups must be immediately released from their ranks, or from detention centers where they might currently be held.’’
    Somalia has not had a functioning government since clan-based warlords toppled dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991 and then turned on each other, sinking the Horn of Africa nation of 7 million people into chaos.
    The Islamic courts seized control of the capital and much of the south six months ago, bringing a semblance of stability but terrifying residents with threats of public executions and floggings of criminals.
    Somali troops, backed by the Ethiopian military, routed the Islamic militia two weeks ago and allowed the U.N.-backed government to enter the capital for the first time since it was established in 2004. Most Islamic militiamen have dispersed, but a few hardcore members have fled toward the Kenyan border and the Indian Ocean.
    Leaders of Somalia’s Islamic movement have vowed from their hideouts to launch an Iraq-style guerrilla war, and al-Qaida chief Osama bin Laden’s deputy has called on militants to carry out suicide attacks on Ethiopian troops.
    Awale Sheik Osman, 14, said he killed several ‘‘hostile’’ soldiers — he didn’t know if they were Ethiopian or Somali government troops — in Idale, 35 miles southwest of the government base of Baidoa. Now back in Mogadishu and living with his mother, he’s frightened to leave the house.
    ‘‘Unfortunately I got a bullet in my left hand, but I wanted to die for the defense of my religion,’’ he said. Osman, whose hand was bandaged, said he was recruited at a mosque near his house.
    Three boys who say the Islamic movement gave them guns and asked them to fight said they managed to escape just in time.
    ‘‘We were sitting near our homes in Mogadishu and (they) came to us and asked if we were good Muslims,’’ said Hassan Abdi Haji, 15, dressed in a black T-shirt and sipping an orange soda. ‘‘They gave us rifles and said they would come back with uniforms.’’
    Before the recruiters could return, Somali and Ethiopian forces ousted the Islamists from the capital.
    ‘‘We threw the guns away,’’ Haji said, adding: ‘‘Then we called our parents.’’
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