More than 100 children fleeing areas controlled by al-Shabab militants in central Somalia have arrived in the coastal town of Adale, seeking the government's protection, officials said.
Adale is a key trading town in the Middle Shabelle region, 220 kilometers northeast of Mogadishu.
In an interview with VOA Somali, the town's district commissioner, Muse Mohamed Ahmed, said the fleeing children are resisting new al-Shabab recruitment campaigns.
"Al-Shabab has a large number of old fighters, so they want to recruit children to bolster its ranks. They have started abducting children from local schools, and those who do not want to join them have decided to flee to the government-controlled areas," Ahmed said.
He estimated that more than 500 children have fled villages and towns in central Somalia, mainly in the Galgudud, Hirran and Middle Shabelle areas.
"We do not have the exact number, but our estimation is that more than 500 children, mainly between the ages of 10 to 15, have arrived in the town in the last couple of months," Ahmed said.
"Most of them pass to other government-controlled areas to join relatives, but 100 of them who did not know where to go stay with us here."
He said each of the families in the town has offered to have two or three children stay with them until Somali government and regional authorities decide their fate.
Other sources in the town have confirmed the presence of the youngsters.
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who made an emergency visit to Somalia in March, said more than half of the fighters in the militant group may be children.
Somali government officials said children as young as nine are being used in combat.
"We have seen children as young as nine being caught or killed in several fronts fighting along the militants," said Col. Omar Ahmed with the Somali National Army, or SNA.
Al-Shabab continues waging an insurgency against the U.S.-backed federal government in Somalia and the African Union troops deployed there 10 years ago. Al-Shabab, which is allied with al-Qaida, has been fighting since 2006 to overthrow the Somali government and turn the country into a strict Islamic state.