The United Nations has accused both sides to the Syria conflict of grave violations against children.
Children caught in the Syrian war are being recruited as child soldiers, used as human shields, and tortured, according to a new UN report.
The report, released on Tuesday, found that in the early stages of the nearly three-year conflict, the Syrian government troops were largely responsible for grave violations against children; then, as the conflict intensified and armed opposition became more organised they committed an increasing number of child abuses.
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The UN did not receive reports of formal recruitment of children by government forces, but troops and pro-government militia reportedly intimidated and seized young males, some under 18, to join them at checkpoints and during raids in pro-government and contested areas.
Th UN chief Ban Ki-moon said government forces "were responsible for the arrest, arbitrary detention and torture of children for their perceived or actual association with the opposition, and for using children as human shields."
Witnesses have told UN investigators that the majority of children were held in the same cells as adults and that children as young as 11 were tortured.
The report found that some of the treatment children were subjected to included "beatings with metal cables, whips and wooden and metal batons; electric shocks, including to the genitals; the ripping out of fingernails and toenails; sexual violence, including rape or threats of rape; mock executions; cigarette burns; sleep deprivation; solitary confinement; and exposure to the torture of relatives."
In one account in 2011, government forces used at least eight children as hostages against the opposition to surrender. The UN says it does not know their fate.
Rebel recruitment of child refugees
The UN has previously reported on child abuse, but this is the first report to the UN Security Council detailing the worsening extent of the problem covering the period March 1, 2011 to November 15, 2013.
"Of particular concern were cases of recruitment or attempted recruitment of children within refugee populations in neighbouring countries. The majority of incidents were related to recruitment by Free Syrian Army-affiliated groups (FSA) or Syrian Kurdish armed groups," Ban said.
The lack of education or job opportunities and peer pressure were identified as key factors leading to the recruitment of refugee children, according to the report.
Within Syria, Ban's report said the UN "received consistent reports of recruitment and use of children by FSA-affiliated groups" but that it was not conducted as a policy or systematically.
"Many boys stated that they felt it was their duty to join the opposition," the report said.
Children in the battle fields
Children have been trained with weapons and knives by the FSA, according to reports, and used as cooks, porters, smugglers, spies, messengers and lookouts. The decision to arm a child to participate in attacks was made on an individual basis and according to the rules of each armed group.
|Leila Zerrougui, the UN Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict speaks to Al Jazeera
"Many are killed not only because they're fighting, but because they're performing these funtions and are in the middle of the battle fields," Leila Zerrougui, Special Representative of the Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, told Al Jazeera.
A first round of peace talks in Geneva concluded on Friday without progress towards ending Syria's civil war or reducing the violence, which regularly kills more than 100 people a day.
The government and opposition parties are due to meet for a second round of negotiations next week.
The UN has accused at least 14 groups for committing serious offences against children. According to its estimates, more than 100,000 people have been killed in Syria, including more than 10,000 children.
More than two million people - mostly women and children - have fled Syria's conflict, which began in March 2011 with popular protests against President Bashar al-Assad and spiralled into civil war after a crackdown by security forces.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies