India's Maoist rebels are on a drive to recruit thousands of child soldiers in the country's poor rural heartlands, police and human rights agencies say, sometimes by force.
The rebels are making parents of poor families in east and central India hand over their children, aged mostly between 10-15 years, with promises of food and a better life in camps, they said, in some cases taking the children without consent.
"The Maoists are recruiting very small children in rural areas and the government is not doing anything about it, which is very disturbing," Meha Dixit, an activist with Amnesty International, said in New Delhi.
The Maoists have plans to recruit over 10,000 child soldiers from a few hundred now in east and central India, officials said, in an effort to strengthen their militant youth wing and influence in the heartlands.
On Tuesday, at least 20 children recruited by Maoists were arrested by police in the impoverished eastern state of Bihar.
"We heard that Maoists were recruiting children for their operation at a training camp and to our surprise we found a large number of teenage boys there," Vinay Kumar, a senior police officer, told Reuters in Bihar.
The rebels, who regularly kill policemen, and attack government establishments and factories in a large swathe of eastern and central India, say they are fighting the government on behalf of the poor and landless.
Human rights groups and police say the Maoists teach children to use weapons and to be informers.
"The Maoists are using children for their own purpose by recruiting them, but it is their age to read and play," said Ranjan Mohanty of the Campaign against Child Labour.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has described the four-decade-old Maoist rebellion as the single biggest threat to India's internal security. It has killed thousands of people.
In the central state of Chhattisgarh, insurgents were recruiting dozens of children in the 12-15 year age group to boost numbers in a Maoist youth wing, police and NGO workers said.
"It is a forced recruitment," Girdhari Nayak, the police chief for anti-Maoist operations in the state of Chhattisgarh told Reuters.
"The rebels are carrying away the children without consent of their parents for a tough training to handle sophisticated weapons," Nayak said.
Earlier this month, the government in eastern state of Orissa came across new video footage of Maoist child soldiers during a raid at a camp.
International and Indian human rights agencies said they have reports of rebels forcing children to join them and in several cases threatening to kill their parents if they refused.
But human rights workers say Indian authorities were also encouraging children to take up guns in a government-backed tribal militia movement against the Maoists.
"We have reports of rebel groups and the tribal militia recruiting children," Dixit, of Amnesty International, said.