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Are Pakistan’s Taliban using children as weapons?

A 9-year-old schoolgirl narrowly escaped a plot laid by her Taliban kidnappers this week in Pakistan’s northwest to use her as a suicide bomber at a military checkpoint, raising concerns about militants’ intent to use children in their battles.

The girl, Sohana, was kidnapped over the weekend by two men and two burqa-clad women in Peshawar, who huddled her into the car and drove to Timargarah. That’s the largest town in Lower Dir, bordering Afghanistan, where Pakistan’s security forces launched a successful crackdown against the Taliban insurgency in 2009.

“I was buying toffees from a roadside vendor on my way to school,” the third-grader, wearing a white-head scarf and blue school uniform, told police officials and reporters after her narrow escape on Monday.

“When I opened my eyes, I found myself in a room. They fed me biscuits and I fell unconscious,” she said. The next morning, Taliban militants took her close to the Darra Islam checkpoint and forced her to wear a suicide vest. “They put on one suicide jacket on me, but it did not fit,” she said. “Then they put on another one.”

“You keep on reciting Koranic verses till you push the button,” the girl says the Taliban militant told her. But police say Sohana escaped from the car while they were trying the second vest on her, not, tossing it aside as she ran away. “I released my hand from the woman and ran by shouting and screaming; as I came close to the checkpoint, they [police] took me into custody.”

On Tuesday, police officials say, the girl was reunited with her family.

Sohana’s experience triggered concerns among human rights organizations that the Taliban are now increasingly using children as their main weapon. “I believe that the Taliban are becoming desperate,” says a leading activist, Farzana Bari. “It is worrisome that now they [ the Taliban] want to destroy the young generation and use these innocent kids as their soldiers in the name of holy war.”

Among those who took the girl into custody was Saleem Marwat, a senior police official in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province. He says police are on the hunt for her kidnappers and are still working to verify her story with witness accounts. “We have had instances of the Taliban recruiting young boys as suicide bombers, but kidnapping of children and turning them into suicide bombers is a worrying sign,” he says.

Only a week ago, police investigators arrested a Taliban militant recruiter in Karachi whose job it was to reportedly convert madrasa children into suicide bombers.

They also took two teenage madrasa students into custody who had been trained as suicide bombers in North Waziristan. The Monitor published a detailed interview Arshad Khan, a teenager, who disclosed how his life changed from a madrasa student to a suicide bomber.

Khan and his friend Waqar barely survived a drone attack two years ago, and were sent back by the Taliban to Karachi as they had gotten injured. Their recruiter was the arrested militant commander Abdur Razzaq. Officials say that failure to introduce reforms to unregulated madrasas across the country could be partly to blame for recruitment in youths among militants. In order to eliminate the overall jihadi culture in the country, they say experts must address the unregulated madrasa problem.

Meanwhile, Sohana – which may be a pseudonym used for her security – is back with her family. Police officials do not want to disclose the location of the family due to security concerns. “She is happy but holding on to her mother tightly and not letting go,” says a police official.

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