SANAA, Yemen, Jan. 6 (UPI) -- As Yemen's beleaguered government launches a new offensive against al-Qaida, the other conflict in the troubled Arabian peninsula state takes a shocking twist: The regime and tribal rebels in the north are both using child soldiers, according to aid officials.
Child soldiers have been a feature of warfare throughout history, although these days there are international laws that prohibit the use of children under 18 in conflicts. But they are difficult to enforce and are widely ignored, even though persistent failure to prevent children taking part in combat is considered a war crime by the International Criminal Court.
In Yemen, one of the most impoverished states in the Arab world, there are three times as many guns as there people, and young boys learn to carry an AK-47s from an early age.
But as the country descends into chaos with the government fighting a stubborn rebellion by Shiite tribes in the north, an increasingly violent secessionist movement in the south and a resurgent al-Qaida, the use of children by the various combatant forces is increasing, rights groups report.
As many as 500-600 children are killed or wounded through direct involvement in tribal combat in Yemen every year, according to Abdul-Rahman al-Marwani, chairman of a local non-governmental organization working to prevent the use of child soldiers.
Radhika Coomaraswamy, the U.N. secretary-general's special representative for children and armed conflict, said "large numbers" of teenage boys are being recruited for the fighting.
The northern Houthi rebels in particular do this, said Ahmad al-Qurashi, director of the Sanaa-based Seyaj Organization for Childhood Protection.
He noted other tribes fighting alongside government forces do the same. "We know that among these tribes, on a regular basis, more than 50 percent of the combatants are under the legal age," he said.
Fatin Abbas of Harvard University, who has written extensively on African affairs, says Africa, with its seeming endless cycle of wars, revolutions and insurgencies, is "the epicenter of the child soldier phenomenon."
He noted in a 2007 analysis that "never before in the history of warfare have children been exploited on such a vast scale."
Statistics compiled by the U.N. Children's Fund, or UNICEF, indicate that 300,000 children under 18 serve as regular soldiers, guerrilla fighters, porters, spies, sex slaves and even suicide bombers in conflicts under way in more than 50 countries.
Most of these children serve with warlords or non-state armed groups, but around 50 states actively recruit hundreds of thousands of children into their armed forces in contravention of international law.
UNICEF estimated that 33,000 boys and girls had been involved in combat in the decade-old Congolese war, largely fought by armed groups seeking control of the country's vast mineral resources.
Some 5.5 million people, mainly civilians, have perished in the conflict that has raged in a country the size of Western Europe.
According to Abbas, in the 1991-2001 civil war in Sierra Leone between the government and the Revolutionary United Front, "as many as 80 percent of all fighters were between the ages of 7 and 14."
"In the two waves of civil war than engulfed Liberia between 1989 and 2003, up to 70 percent of government and rebel combatants were children."
UNICEF reported in September 2009 that more children have been used and recruited by armed groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo than anywhere else in the world.
In Somalia, thousands of youngsters, some as young as 8, have been recruited and trained by the Islamist al-Shebab movement fighting the Western-backed Transitional Federal Government.
Before the 25-year Tamil insurgency in Sri Lanka was finally crushed in July 2009, UNICEF recorded more than 6,000 cases of recruitment by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam between 2003 and late 2008.
The total was believed to have soared in the final months of the conflict.
The Tamil Tigers were notorious for maintaining a "baby brigade" that recruited, trained and sent into combat children as young as 11.
In Pakistan, the Islamist Taliban brainwashes young boys into becoming suicide bombers, according to government officials in Islamabad.
In July 2009 the Pakistani army claimed the Taliban has kidnapped around 100 children to be trained as kamikazes.
Research carried out in El Salvador, Ethiopia and Uganda show that almost one-third of the child soldiers surveyed were girls.