HUNDREDS of school dropouts and street boys in Kenyan cities have been lured into the Democratic Republic of Congo to join rebels fighting President Laurent Kabila.
The boys are usually smuggled out of Kenya through Uganda and Rwanda dressed in school uniforms or as Boy Scouts.
It is estimated that the rebels, living as refugees in Nairobi slums, have recruited more than 2,500 children aged between 14 and 16.
The boys are offered money and promised lucrative jobs and good living conditions in Rwanda, Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda. Recruiters in the slums also promise the school drop-outs the chance to obtain scholarships and jobs in France.
However, refugee sources said the boys end up in Congo where they are trained in warfare and pressganged into rebel units. "The street children are lured by Rwandan Interahamwe who escaped to Kenya in 1994, after they were routed by the Rwandan Patriotic Front," said Kazibwe Ngutuligaa, a Rwandan refugee in Kena.
Refugee sources confirmed that US$500 (pound;300) is paid for every batch of 150 boys delivered to the rebel agents in East Africa.
Mubimak Maneniang, the Congolese press attache in Nairobi, says that his government is aware that children are being recruited. "We have evidence that Kenyan street-children are put into active combat. We have asked the Kenyan authorities to investigate," he said.
Priests of the East Africa Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church have been implicated in recruitment of child soldiers. The denomination has a strong following in Rwanda and Burundi and is said to have a rebel recruitment centre in Nairobi.
The "baby soldiers" are said to have no emotions and obey orders without question. If captured in combat, they are unlikely to be sentenced to hang since they are protected by international conventions. However, Kenyans are worried by the recruitment because of the role such youths might play on return to Kenya.