MANILA, April 8, 2011 (AFP) – The UN said Friday it had so far registered 600 child soldiers, some as young as eight, fighting for armed groups in the Philippines and expected the final number to be in the thousands.

The country’s main Muslim rebel group, communist insurgents and Al-Qaeda-linked extremists were all on the UN “list of shame” for recruiting boys and girls, UN representatives said.

“We have about 600 children registered (as soldiers) at the moment. We expect it to (eventually) be in the early thousands,” said Radhika Coomaraswamy, UN special representative for children and armed conflict.

“It (the problem) is not as widespread as in Africa but it still has to be dealt with,” she told a news conference.

The 600 were identified as members of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the country’s main Muslim rebel group which is now engaged in a ceasefire and peace talks with the government.

The children were registered by local community workers under a nine-month programme initiated by the UN in April with the consent of the MILF, said Coomaraswamy.

“A lot of the MILF child fighters live at home. They are not really taken away from their families in fighting,” she said.

She gave credit to the rebel group for cooperating with the programme to reintegrate and rehabilitate the children so they could rejoin civilian communities.

She also said that for the first time, the National Democratic Front (NDF), the political wing of the communist insurgents, had agreed to an “action plan” to remove child combatants from its ranks but there was no discussion of details and numbers.

“They didn’t categorically say that they had children (combatants) maybe because of legal reasons but they did acknowledge that it was a problem,” Coomaraswamy said.

The third group, the Abu Sayyaf, an Islamic extremist group linked by intelligence agencies to the Al-Qaeda network, showed no signs of cooperating.

“They don’t seem at all interested,” said Coomaraswamy.

Vanessa Tobin, the country representative for the UN Children’s Fund, said surveys showed that about 73 percent of child soldiers were boys and the rest were girls– mostly teenagers who had dropped out of school.

But some were as young as eight, she added.

The 12,000-member MILF and the Abu Sayyaf, who number about 300 to 400 are active mostly on the southern island of Mindanao where this largely-Christian country’s Muslim minority is based.

The communist insurgents, who have about 5,000 fighters, are active in rural areas throughout the archipelago. The NDF have opened peace talks with the government but no ceasefire is in place.