As West African leaders seek a green light to send forces into northern Mali, the United Nations child protection organization said at least 175 boys had been recruited as child soldiers in the region, prodded into fighting in the chaotic aftermath of a Tuareg rebellion.
Tuareg rebels equipped with weapons from Libya declared their own state of Azawad in northern Mali this year. Mali, unsettled by a military coup, has thus far been unable to stop them.
On the heels of the Tuareg advances, Islamic extremist groups took over Mali towns and imposed strict religious law, defaced and destroyed tombs and mosques, and reportedly sparred with the Tuareg, their onetime allies, ousting them from Timbuktu last week.
The Economic Community of West African States, a bloc of West African nations, has pressed to send regional troops into northern Mali to stabilize the turbulent region. The U.N. Security Council said Thursday that it wanted more information on those plans before it gave them its blessing.
With little access to northern Mali, UNICEF said it had only an incomplete picture of the violence and militarism affecting children. The agency said the shuttering of schools across the north had affected up to 300,000 children, leaving them at higher risk of being recruited or exploited.
UNICEF media relations chief Peter Smerdon said that because its access to information was limited, the agency could not specify which armed groups had recruited children. Besides the child soldiers, the agency said there were also reports of children being maimed by explosives, raped and sexually abused.
Youth are also especially susceptible to malnutrition, which has spread across Mali during its lean season. More than 70,000 children have been treated for severe malnutrition this year, according to UNICEF, which has gotten barely a fifth of the funding it has sought to stem the hunger crisis in Mali. Locust swarms, left uncontrolled as Libya was riven by fighting between rival militias, threaten to worsen the problem.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles