Colombia’s FARC guerrillas pledged not to recruit fighters aged under 17, but the country’s President Juan Manuel Santos said the move did not go far enough.
It comes as the leftist rebels and the Colombian government are meeting in Cuba in an attempt to thrash out a peace deal to end five decades of conflict that have left 220,000 people dead.
Ivan Marquez, the rebels’ chief peace negotiator in the two-year-old talks, said the FARC would raise the minimum age for recruits from 15 to 17.
“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,” he said.
Though government negotiators gave a cautious welcome to the FARC’s pledge, they also called on the guerrillas — accused of recruiting children as young as eight — to extend the decision to all under-17s already in its ranks.
“It’s a step that we appreciate as being in the right direction, but it’s not enough,” Santos said in a speech in the southern Colombian region of Caqueta.
“I do not understand why it’s 17 years, when the (age of majority) is 18.”
Underlining the continuing discord between the two sides, Marquez accused the government of 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.
The government’s chief peace negotiator, Humberto de la Calle, did not respond to the accusation.
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 hundreds of thousands 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.