Nearly half of remaining Maute fighters in Marawi are children

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Marawi City (CNN Philippines, August 27) — They're called child soldiers – minors fighting government forces for the ISIS-inspired Maute group.

In a Friday press briefing, Lanao del Sur Crisis Management Committee Spokesperson Zia Alonto Adiong showed a photo of a child holding a pistol and teenagers brandishing high-powered sub-machine guns.

Adiong said almost half of Maute fighters remaining in the battle zone are minors, with around 20 children engaged in actual combat.

"Mga [There are] personal accounts from survivors, from persons, from people that we've rescued," he said. "They have seen as young as 12 years old, carrying high-powered guns and manning the checkpoints."

Joint Task Force Ranao Deputy Commander Romeo Brawner said at the briefing that using child warriors is part of the Maute group's strategy.

"May mga storya nga po na lumalabas na yung ating mga sundalo at pulis ay naghe-hesitate na bumaril pagka bata po yung nakita nila [There are stories coming out that our soldiers and police officers hesitate to shoot when they see a child]," he said.

But Brawner said if the lives of troops are in danger, they have no choice but to fire at these minors.

"Pagka humawak na ng baril yung bata at mayroon nang threat po sa ating government forces ay maaari po nating gawin yung dapat gawin yung nararapat, i-neutralize yung  batang ito [If these kids wield guns and they pose a threat to our government forces, we will do what is necessary, including neutralizing these children]," he said.

Republic Act 10364 or "The Expanded Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act of 2012" prohibits recruiting children for armed conflict.

The country is also a signatory to the United Nations' Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict.

According to the UN protocol, "states will demobilize anyone under 18 conscripted or used in hostilities and will provide physical, psychological recovery services and help their social reintegration. Armed groups distinct from the armed forces of a country should not, under any circumstances, recruit or use in hostilities anyone under 18."

When the children are captured or rescued – the military must turn them over to the Social Welfare department.

A 17-year-old former Maute member told CNN Philippines in July 2017 he was recruited in 2012 in the town of Piagapo in Lanao del Sur when he was 12 years old.

READ: PH military exercising caution vs. Maute child soldiers in Marawi

"Benjie" (not his real name) said he was recruited by three foreigners and a Maranao with a promise of getting paid ₱15,000 a month.

Part of the training involved self-defense, learning the Arabic language and how to handle torture if they are captured.

"Basta kumukuha sila ng mga bata, hindi nila sinasabi na, sinasama ka nila sa kampo nila. Hindi nila sinasabi na Daulah Islamiyah sila. Sinasabi nila na mga army. Kung nagte-training kayo ng army, pumunta kayo dito," he said.

[Translation: They just recruit children and they bring you to their camp. They don't say they're part of Daulah Islamiyah. They say they're from the army. If you want to train for the army, come here.]

"Benjie" said around 40 children, some as young as seven years old, were in the training camp.

He said he was there for two months then he escaped after he found out they were not trained by the military.

Meanwhile, Adiong said government must aggressively educate the youth against extremism.

In response, the Mindanao State University is planning additional subjects to counter radicalism among the youth.

Adiong said this could be a beginning to stem radicalism and extremism among the youth.