BOGOTA, Sept. 12 (UPI) — Colombia’s FARC rebel group recently began releasing child soldiers as part of a peace agreement with the administration of President Juan Manuel Santos.
The International Red Cross will give mental and physical examinations to the 13 children the FARC released on Saturday. The Marxist rebel group, known officially as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, said it had 21 soldiers under the age of 15, but Colombia’s Ministry of Defense said the figure is an underestimate.
The Red Cross said the children would be taken to temporary reception centers. Authorities hope to reunite the children with their families if they were victims of kidnappings. Many of the details about the handover will be kept secret to protect the children’s identity.
“We the FARC believe that the outing of minors from war zones is only the first step towards a better future for new generations,” the FARC said in a statement.
The Colombian Army estimates nearly half of all FARC members were recruited when they were children — a human rights violation. Many child soldiers have said they joined the FARC to escape domestic violence or poverty.
Sergio Jaramillo, Colombia’s High Commissioner for Peace, said the children will be released gradually from different rebel camps throughout the country.
“It’s not going to be all at once — it is a process and this is the first phase,” Jaramillo said.
More than 220,000 people have died and 5 million have been internally displaced due to the Colombian conflict since the FARC’s founding in 1964. The militant rebel group has been involved in drug-trafficking, kidnapping and other illicit activity to fund its insurgency.
Colombia still faces the threat of the National Liberation Army, or ELN, rebel group. The Colombian government stalled formal peace talks with the guerilla group that were to begin in May over the issue of kidnappings. The ELN has up 3,000 members, but officials the group’s strength is waning, and that its membership is down.