THE BRITISH military is under pressure to end recruitment of under-18s as part of an international agreement aimed at ending dangerous forms of child labour.
Some 6,600 people aged 16 and 17 serve in the British army, Royal Navy and Royal Air Force - 3.3 per cent of the total personnel.
More than two dozen 17-year-olds were last month among the 5,500-strong army units in the Balkans and more are likely to follow as part of a peace-keeping force overseeing the return of Albanian Kosovan refugees to their homes.
The International Labour Organisation will meet this month to agree a draft convention outlawing all forms of hazardous employment for under-18s. Although it does not refer explicitly to military service, it is seen by some governments and human rights organisations such as Save The Children as an opportunity to end the use of child soldiers.
Children as young as seven have been forced to fight in Sri Lanka, Somalia and other conflicts.
The British government is unwilling to agree a blanket ban on under-18s because of the implications for its own stretched forces. It recruits at 16 with parents' consent but says 16-year-olds are barred from hostilities and 17-year-olds deployed only when fully trained.
A Ministry of Defence spokesman said a ban on recruiting under-18s "might affect our ability to meet our commitments. But more importantly it would deny young people entering the employment market the career opportunities that the armed services offer."
Save the Children this week demanded that under-18s should, if recruited, not be sent to any battle zone, and that they should have the right to leave the forces at any time before their 18th birthday.
But the MoD argues its current practice is in line with international opinion.
"In professional volunteer armed forces such as we have in the UK, we feel it is good for both the forces and for young people to be able to recruit at 16. It's a competitive employment market," said the spokesman. "If ICI can recruit at 16, why can't we?"
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