By JASON STRAZIUSO
The Associated Press
Sunday, July 15, 2007; 1:22 PM
KABUL, Afghanistan -- Fourteen-year-old Rafiqullah said the men at the Pakistani madrassa showed him and two classmates videos of suicide attackers. They taught the boys to drive a car and let them ride motorcycles. Then the militants gave Rafiqullah his mission: kill an Afghan governor.
The teenager walked eight hours over the porous border from Pakistan to the eastern Afghan city of Khost, where a man named Abdul Aziz tried to pump up his courage, Rafiqullah said. Aziz gave him an explosives-laden vest, and the teenager confessed his fears.
"I said I was afraid to carry out the suicide attack, and Abdul Aziz pointed a gun at me and said 'I'll kill you if you don't,'" Rafiqullah told The Associated Press while he was in the custody of Afghan authorities over the weekend.
Declaring the teen an innocent pawn manipulated by militants, President Hamid Karzai on Sunday freed Rafiqullah, who appears to be at least the third child co-opted by Taliban fighters to carry out attacks since April. Intelligence agents arrested the teen in early June, the night before he was to carry out his bombing.
"Today we are faced with a fearful and terrifying truth, and that truth is the sending of a Muslim child to carry out a suicide attack," Karzai said at the presidential palace with Rafiqullah and the teen's father at his side.
Last month, a 6-year-old boy in Ghazni province said Taliban militants forced him to put on a suicide vest and walk up to American soldiers _ a potential attack foiled when the boy asked Afghan soldiers for help. A gory Taliban video that surfaced in April showed militants instructing a boy of about 12 in Pakistan as he beheaded an alleged traitor with a knife.
Rafiqullah said at least two other teenage boys his age had been indoctrinated to carry out suicide attacks at his madrassa, or religious school, in Kotki village in Pakistan's border region of South Waziristan. He said he doesn't know where the boys are or if they will launch attacks.
The use of such young combatants constitutes a war crime, according to the United Nations.
Unable to pay for his son's schooling, Rafiqullah's father instead sent his boy to a madrassa about five hours from their hometown of Shamin Khail.
Karzai put his hand on the shoulder of Rafiqullah's father Sunday and said: "He is not guilty. He sent his son to get an education but the enemy of Islam tried to deceive this child and wanted to kill him and other people around him."
An Afghan intelligent agent said Rafiqullah, who goes by one name, comes from the Mehsud tribe that lives on both sides of the border. The officer said a number of children are missing from the tribe.
"These madrassas are far away from their villages, and the boys are sent away for six or seven months at a time," said the agent, who cannot be identified according to agency rules.
He said madrassas attempt to brainwash students by showing them fake films of, for instance, Westerners defacing the Quran, the Muslim holy book. "Those films encourage them to carry out attacks," the intelligence officer said.
Rafiqullah said a man named Malawi Aminullah sought out volunteers for attacks among the 150 to 200 teenage boys at the religious school. When Rafiqullah and two others showed interest, Aminullah showed them films and gave speeches encouraging them to carry out attacks.
"He said, 'Do you want to go to heaven? Then you should launch a suicide attack. The people who live in Afghanistan are not Muslims,'" Rafiqullah said. "Now I understand that everyone here is Muslim."
When asked why he thought the militants were using children to carry out attacks, Rafiqullah refused to say anything. The Afghan intelligence agent said the teen and his family were likely withholding details for fear of reprisals from a Pakistani militant leader. He said Rafiqullah's father might not return the boy to his home village for the same reason.
Norkio Izumi, the chief of child protection for the Afghanistan office of UNICEF, said officials had anecdotal evidence that armed groups in the region are recruiting child fighters. But she said there wasn't enough documented evidence to say if the practice is increasing.
Maj. John Thomas, a spokesman for NATO's International Security Assistance Force, said officials have not seen a trend of children being used in attacks, but such incidents raise concerns about potential child-age bombers.
"Whenever a patrol goes through a marketplace they're swarmed by children and this is actually something that troops look forward to," Thomas said. "If they have to be suspicious of the children it's not going to help them establish the rapport they would like to with the local population."
Karzai said the Afghan government had given Rafiqullah $2,000 to return to Pakistan.
"I wish for him a good life," Karzai said. "The message of the Afghan people is a message of kindness, a message of good relations, good business and trade, not deceiving and encouraging people's children to carry out suicide attacks"
Associated Press reporters Rahim Faiez and Amir Shah in Kabul and Sadaqat Jan in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.