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Hundreds of MILF child soldiers released in Philippines

Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the country's largest armed group, ends recruitment of children as part of peace plan.

Hundreds of child soldiers have been released by the Philippines' main separatist rebel group, continuing its commitment to end the recruitment and use of children within its ranks.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), one of the most powerful armed groups in the country, released the children on Friday as part of an action plan with the UN.

In 2009, the group signed an action plan with the UN to end the recruitment of child soldiers, a practice that extends over generations.

The first in a series of disengagement ceremonies took place in February and the group will eventually disengage more than 1,800 children, according to UNICEF.

Some of the children fought on the front line with the group, but the majority performed tasks as couriers and support staff.

Richard Heydarian, a professor of political science in Manila, said it is important to remember that many of these child soldiers were born into the conflict.

"We have to keep in mind that this is not like South Sudan or Sierra Leone ... where you have these children ripped apart from their family and forcibly coerced to become child soldiers," he said.

"Many of these children are actually very much part of the fabric of the community that has been supporting the Moro Islamic Liberation Front."

The Islamic group, based on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, has fought for succession for decades, routinely recruiting and using children within its ranks, according to UNICEF.

The children who are released will be offered scholarships to finish school, as well as support from the government and NGOs for full integration back into society.

"The release of children from the MILF is only the beginning of the next phase of their youth. The next step is to ensure that these children receive support," UNICEF's country representative Lotta Sylwander said last month.

Example for other armed groups

The number of child soldiers in the Philippines remains unknown. Mindanao is home to a number of armed groups who use and recruit combatants under the age of 18, according to the UN.

As a signatory of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Philippines has vowed to end the practice, but progress has remained slow.

Symbolic step for peace

The MILF signed a peace accord with the government in 2014. That deal, however, stalled following the death of several government special forces during a botched operation in 2015.

Heydarian said that the disengagement of the child soldiers is a "symbolic" move by the MILF, but the government remains too involved in other crises.

"It shows the MILF wants to be part of mainstream Philippines", Heydarian said.

"The problem right now is that ironically you have a Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte having its first president from Mindanao, but the president right now is really bogged down by the controversial drug war, by ongoing peace negotiations ... with the Communists, and also the threat of ISIS", Heydarian said using an alternative abbreviation for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, or ISIL.


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