Photographs of child soldiers were among the items left behind as the military overran a camp of the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in the southern Philippines, a military commander said.
Col. Edgardo Gonzales said that he found the photos when he inspected the 7.5-hectare camp of the rebel group in the remote town of Shariff Saydona Mustapha on Saturday.
“There were pictures of children carrying rifles. Some looked like they were 12 years old,” Gonzales said as he searched through the abandoned camp.
“They were showing off their capability. There were four kids posing with guns. I believe it was not just for show. I believe those rifles were issued to them,” he said.
Gonzales said the military would eventually release the pictures.
The colonel said he had not personally seen child soldiers but his men had reported encountering them in battles with the BIFF.
“My men have said they have seen kids. Some of them have no guns. They just follow a comrade from the BIFF and when the comrade is shot, they pick up his gun and start fighting,” he said.
Presidential Spokesman Abigail Valte said “the news that they used three child soldiers is
shocking, beyond the fact that it violates so many laws, not just ours but international laws.”
She condemned the use of minors in combat and said government child support services would address the problem.
She also called on parents not to allow their children to be recruited.
A spokesman for the BIFF, Abu Misry, told Agence France-Presse his group did not use child soldiers, however, and charged that the military was planting or staging the evidence against them.
“Those kids who died were not used as soldiers. They were civilians, killed by (military) airstrikes or by their 105 mm howitzers,” he said angrily.
National military spokesman Lt. Col. Ramon Zagala denied the claim, saying the three slain youths, aged 15-17, were uniformed BIFF fighters.
He also said there were previous videos and photographs of the BIFF conducting military-style training of children.
Zagala stressed that it was difficult to recognize child soldiers during combat.
“It is very hard to distinguish especially in the heat of battle when they are carrying firearms and shooting at you,” he said.