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Crisis means more child soldiers in Colombia -UN

BOGOTA, Feb 11 (Reuters) - Global financial turmoil could drive more children to become fighters for Colombia's rebel groups as the country's poorest people suffer the fallout of the economic slowdown, a U.N. agency said on Wednesday.

Colombia's Marxist guerrillas and paramilitary gangs often recruit children as fighters and spies and the government estimated last year that as many as 8,000 children were still caught up in the four-decade-old conflict. They entice child soldiers by offering money.

"The armed groups aren't going to suffer the recession like the country's poor," Paul Martin, a United Nations Children's Fund representative in Colombia, told reporters.

"They're going to keep offering a million pesos to children who live and struggle more each day from the crisis and each day are more likely to accept those offers," he said.

Violence from the Andean country's conflict has eased since President Alvaro Uribe sent U.S.-backed troops to retake areas once under the control of illegal groups. FARC rebels have been driven back into the remote jungles and mountains.

Investment has soared as bombings and murders fall, but Colombia recently cut its growth outlook for this year and next as it absorbs the impact of the financial crisis rattling markets and economies across the world.

Aid agencies say the FARC guerrilla force is stepping up forced recruitment of children to fill ranks sapped by a string of military defeats and scores of desertions.

Children as young as 10 are used as informants or to transport arms and are later trained as fighters.

In 2006, a rights group reported as many as 11,000 children and teenagers may have belonged to Colombia's armed groups. But the Defense Ministry estimated last year that figure was closer to 8,000. ($1 = 2,533 Colombian pesos) (Reporting by Patrick Markey; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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