Colombian rebels promise end to use of child soldiers

FARC rebels pose with an unidentified girl holding a weapon in southern Colombia in this undated photo confiscated by the Colombian police and released to the media on November 12, 2009. REUTERS/National Police/Handout

HAVANA (Reuters) - Colombia’s leftist FARC rebels on Wednesday promised they would no longer enlist minors, a gesture aimed at quickly reaching a final peace agreement with the government after more than half a century of war.

“In order to move as quickly as possible toward the end of armed conflict, today we communicate our decision to end the incorporation of children under 18 into the FARC,” rebel leader Victoria Sandino said in a statement read in Havana, site of peace talks with the Colombian government for the past three years.

Both sides are attempting to meet a self-imposed March 23 deadline to end Latin America’s longest war, which has killed some 220,000 and displaced millions since 1964.

FARC leaders have cast doubt on their ability to meet next month’s deadline but Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos has been pressing for urgency, eager to reach a deal that would later be put before Colombian voters for approval.

The FARC, long accused by the government and human rights groups of using child solders as cannon fodder, announced a year ago that it would stop recruiting fighters 17 years old or younger.

Its forces are estimated at 8,000 guerrillas but it is unknown how many might be minors.

Upon Wednesday’s announcement, the FARC asked the government to reciprocate with a state policy aimed at guaranteeing the rights of minors affected by the war.

Reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Daniel Trotta and David Gregorio