KABUL (AFP) - Taleban insurgents in Afghanistan are recruiting children as young as six years old to eventually be deployed into combat, adding scores to their ranks since mid-2015, Human Rights Watch reported on Wednesday.
The insurgents claim they only enlist fighters who have achieved "mental and physical maturity" and do not use "boys with no beards".
But HRW said in a statement the Taleban have been actively recruiting young boys and training them in military operations including the use of improvised explosive device (IEDs).
"The Taleban's apparent strategy to throw increasing numbers of children into battle is as cynical and cruel as it is unlawful," said Patricia Gossman, senior HRW Afghanistan researcher.
"Afghan children should be at school and at home with their parents, not exploited as cannon fodder for the Taleban insurgency."
HRW focused on northern Afghanistan, particularly Kunduz province, where it said the militants were also increasingly using Islamic religious schools known as madrassas for the military training of children.
Indoctrination of boys under Taleban teachers can start as young as the age of six, the report said, with seven years of military training before they are deployed to militant groups by the age of 13.
Local residents and analysts told HRW they believe the increase in child soldiers over the last 12 months was largely due to the insurgents' major offensive in northern Afghanistan, which began in April 2015.
In September the Taleban briefly took control of Kunduz city, the first major provincial capital seized by the insurgents since they were ousted from power in 2001.
HRW interviewed relatives of 13 children recruited as Taleban soldiers over the past year, and verified their claims through interviews with civil society activists, political analysts, and the United Nations.
Among them were the families of Qasem, and Ahmad, recruited by Taleban when they were 15 and 14 respectively.
Their families begged for the militants to release them, but were refused.
"When the government forces counter-attacked, both Qasem and Ahmad ... were killed. The boys' families recovered their bodies," a source told HRW.
In Chahardara, a volatile district in Kunduz province, more than 100 children were recruited and deployed by the Taliban in 2015, the report said, citing residents.
A Taliban statement Wednesday said the militants "categorically reject this report".
"The recruitment of children in the ranks of Islamic Emirate is strictly prohibited," it continued.
Rights groups have been warning for years that child recruitment remains rife by the Taliban insurgents but also by pro-government militia forces.
On Wednesday the UN's representative for children in armed conflict Leila Zerrougui told reporters in Kabul that militias such as the Afghan Local Police are using large numbers of child recruits.
This month the Taleban shot dead in southern Uruzgan province Wasil Ahmad, a 12 year-old boy who rose to fame last summer after he joined a pro-government militia force to fight the insurgents.
The Afghan government denied Wasil was part of the government forces.