Colombia's FARC vows to stop recruiting child soldiers

Havana (AFP) - Colombia's FARC guerrillas pledged Thursday to stop recruiting child soldiers, as the leftist rebels and government attempt to thrash out a peace deal to end five decades of conflict.

Government negotiators gave a cautious welcome to the move but also called on the FARC -- accused of recruiting children as young as eight -- to extend the decision to all under-17s currently in its ranks.

Ivan Marquez, the rebels' chief peace negotiator in ongoing talks with the government, said: "The FARC has decided from now on not to incorporate minors under 17 years old into the ranks of the guerrillas and expresses the wish to soon reach a peace accord with social justice."

Marquez accused Bogota of itself using children in its fight against the guerrillas, and called on it to renounce the practice as well.

"The state and its military forces have carried out a policy of systematically using minors in the conflict. This must stop," he told journalists.

Marquez was speaking at the close of the latest round of peace talks in the Cuban capital Havana.

The government's chief peace negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, said the FARC's move was "a step in the right direction" but called it insufficient because those aged 17 -- technically children in Colombia -- would still be recruited.

De la Calle did not react to the FARC's accusation that the government also recruits children.

The FARC's announcement came on the UN's International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers.

According to a Colombian government report from 2013, the FARC has recruited some 13,000 minors since the group was founded in 1964.

The report found children as young as eight had been recruited for reconnaissance or urban missions.

Child soldiers have been used by most of the groups involved in the conflict, which has also drawn in other guerrilla movements, drug gangs and right-wing paramilitaries at various times, but the FARC is the worst offender, according to the government.

The government's rights watchdog says 10 children are recruited by armed groups every month in Colombia.

Since 1999, more than 5,700 have been enlisted, according to an official report which found that 70 percent of them had been sexually abused and 84 percent had been involved in combat.

The Colombian conflict has killed 220,000 people and uprooted more than five million since 1964.

The peace talks, which opened in November 2012, have reached partial deals on several issues but have yet to yield a definitive accord.