KABUL The Taliban denied on Sunday reports by the Afghan government the militant group was recruiting young boys to carry out suicide attacks in Afghanistan, saying it prohibited "beardless" men among its ranks.
The statement came after authorities paraded four young Afghan boys on Saturday they said had been recruited as suicide bombers from homes in Pakistan and were detained crossing the border on a mission to attack foreign troops.
"It must be clarified that based on the principles of the Islamic Emirate, it has imposed a complete restriction on enlisting beardless or underage boys in their jihad operations," the Taliban said in the statement.
"Those who haven't grown a beard due to being underage are prohibited to spend time with the mujahideen in residential and military centers."
Militants in Iraq often used child bombers, some of them disabled, to bypass security checks as troops and police in the country ramped up inspections to counter increasing attacks.
But the use of children and women bombers in Afghanistan has been relatively rare in the decade since U.S.-backed Afghan forces toppled the Taliban government in late 2001.
A 12-year-old child bomber detonated a vest packed with explosives in a bazaar in the Barmal district of Paktika province last week at the start of the insurgents' "spring offensive," killing four civilians and wounding 12.
Foreign military commanders on the ground say they are encountering increasingly younger fighters than nine years ago, with many of them coerced into joining the insurgency.
Afghanistan's army and police have also come under criticism for recruiting underage boys into their ranks as they seek to swell numbers amid worsening security and high attrition rates.
Earlier this year, the Afghan government and the United Nations signed a child protection plan to end recruitment and use of children in the Afghan security forces.
Afghanistan is currently blacklisted by the United Nations for the use of minors by the Afghan National Police. A February report by the U.N. Secretary General on children and armed conflict in Afghanistan said local police offices confirmed holding recruiting campaigns in school compounds.
(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi and Jonathon Burch; Editing by Nick Macfie)