Sri Lanka's government Wednesday accused Tamil Tiger rebels of abducting more than 400 youths from government-controlled areas this year to be trained as combatants, and it asked the insurgents to stop.
The United Nations children's agency, UNICEF, also said insurgents are known to have recruited 539 underage fighters this year through November, although the group believes the actual number could be three times greater. UNICEF spokesman Francis Mead said the mainstream rebels had released 80 of the 539.
Rebel spokesman Rasiah Ilanthirayan denied the charges.
"This is a false propaganda being carried out by the Sri Lankan government and the Sri Lankan military to defame our freedom movement," Ilanthirayan said from the group's headquarters in Kilinochchi.
The abduction accusation came after the military said that Tamil rebels kidnapped 16 girls, seven boys and two teachers from a class in eastern Ampara, an area under government control.
It was the latest alleged abduction by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who say they are fighting the Sri Lankan government to carve out a separate state for the country's 3.2-million ethnic Tamil minority.
The rebels said the teenagers wanted to join their movement and went voluntarily to insurgent-held areas. They were asked to return home after guerrillas learned that they were underage, Ilanthirayan said.