Frontline: Four child soldiers have been deployed alongside British troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has emerged
The children were sent to 'operational theatres' between April 2008 and March 2010

Campaigners against use of child soldiers demand ministers end 'outdated practice'

Four British child soldiers have been sent to war zones - despite a Government ban, it was revealed last night.

Military chiefs 'inadvertently' sent the youngsters - all under 18 - to fight on the frontline.

It is understood the teenagers were deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan where they risked being shot or blown up by homemade bombs.

The revelation sparked outrage because the UK is a signatory to a United Nations pledge not to send children on to battlefields.

The disclosure will also give fresh ammunition to campaigners urging the government to change in the law to end the recruitment of 16 and 17-year-olds into the Armed Forces.
The London-based charity Warchild said: 'Using kids as soldiers constitutes one of the most horrendous breaches of those rights and it is simply and unequivocally wrong.'

But junior defence minister Andrew Robathan attempted to shift responsibility by blaming the mistake on commanders preparing to send troops overseas.

Mr Robathan, who was heavily criticised for failing to enshrine the Military Covenant in law before David Cameron personally intervened, said: 'The pressures on units prior to deployment have meant there have been a small number of instances where service personnel have been inadvertently deployed to an operational theatre before their 18th birthday.'

In a written Parliamentary answer, he said the children were sent to 'operational theatres' between April 2008 and March 2010.

He added: 'Every feasible step is taken, in accordance with our obligations, to prevent the involvement in hostilities of service personnel under the age of 18.'

He admitted the system to root out children before they reached the frontline was 'not infallible'.

But he said tighter checks at RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire, the main British air base for flying troops to warzones, meant no child had been sent to war since the beginning of 2010.

Sources in Whitehall said two of the children who deployed to the frontline were within two days of their 18th birthday. The other two were identified as being underage on landing in the conflict zone.

They were all returned to Britain 'as soon as possible', said Mr Robathan.

Innocence lost: The participation of child soldiers in conflict zones in Africa and elsewhere has sparked global condemnation
Britain agreed to sign the UN protocol - the Convention of the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict - in 2003.

In January a campaign group urged the Government to raise the age of recruitment to 18. Currently, 16 and 17-year-olds can sign up for the Army, Royal Navy and RAF but they cannot participate in hostilities.

But the Coalition To Stop The Use Of Child Soldiers, War Child, Unicef UK, the Children's Society and the Children's Rights Alliance For England want ministers to end the 'outdated practice'.

Last year around 5,000 under-18s were recruited even though they were too young to drink alcohol legally or vote.

Victoria Forbes Adam, director of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, said: 'Joining the armed forces appeals to many young people, especially those who have limited other options, but many are naive about the risks they face.

'The armed forces don't train teenagers to go on an adventure holiday - they train them to go to war. And evidence shows that it's the youngest soldiers who face some of the biggest risks when they reach the frontline.'

During the war in Afghanistan, soldiers aged 18 to 22 have accounted for around a quarter of all British fatalities.