01/16/2013 17:29 GMT
BAMAKO, Jan 16, 2013 (AFP) - Islamist fighters waging a war against French troops in Mali are deploying child soldiers and using the population as a shield against the offensive, a Malian army source said Wednesday.
"These people (the Islamists) have two strategies: using the population as a shield and child soldiers as fighters," the military leader said on condition of anonymity.
He said this was the case in the small town of Diabaly, 400 kilometres (250 miles) north of the Malian capital, where Islamists clashed with French and Malian troops on Wednesday in the first ground offensive since France's operation was launched on January 10.
In Diabaly, the Islamists "are using the population as a shield, which is complicating matters for us. And they have only child soldiers," he said, as the battle raged to drive out the extremists.
The town was seized by insurgents led by Algerian Abou Zeid, one of the leaders of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch urged rebel groups to immediately release child soldiers within their ranks. The rights group said it had interviewed several witnesses reporting children as young as 12 taking part in the fighting.
"These Islamist groups have no business recruiting children into their ranks, much less putting them on the front line," said Corinne Dufka, senior West Africa researcher at Human Rights Watch.
"These groups seem to be wilfully putting scores of children directly in harm's way."