Children are being increasingly recruited on the frontline in Syria's war, with both sides to the conflict using boys as soldiers and even human shields, a British charity said on Wednesday.
Save the Children said in a report marking two years of violence in Syria that two million children were innocent victims of the bloody conflict that the United Nations says has cost at least 70,000 lives.
These children were struggling to find enough food to eat and were therefore under constant risk of malnutrition and disease, said the report, adding many were unable to go to school.
Girls were being forced into early marriage in an effort to protect them from the perceived threat of sexual violence.
"Children are increasingly being put directly in harm’s way as they are being recruited by armed groups and forces," said Save the Children.
"There is a growing pattern of armed groups on both sides of the conflict recruiting children under 18 as porters, guards, informers or fighters.
"For many children and their families, this is seen as a source of pride. But some children are forcibly recruited into military activities, and in some cases children as young as eight have been used as human shields."
One in three children reported having been hit, kicked or shot at, said the report entitled "Children Under Fire," citing research carried out among refugee children by Turkey's Bahcesehir University.
Thousands of children in Syria faced malnutrition, and millions were forced from their homes and live in parks, barns and in some cases caves, it said.
"For millions of Syrian children, the innocence of childhood has been replaced by the cruel realities of trying to survive this vicious war," said Carolyn Miles, the head of Save the Children.
"Many are now living out in the open, struggling to find enough to eat, without the right medicine if they become sick or injured.
"As society has broken down, in the worst cases, hunger, homelessness and terror have replaced school for some of these young people. We cannot allow this to continue unchecked; the lives of too many children are at stake."
The British charity called for all parties to the conflict to allow access to conflict zones and for governments to deliver on pledges to fund a $1.5 billion humanitarian appeal for Syria.
The uprising was sparked in March 2011 by the arrest and torture of children and adolescents accused of painting anti-regime graffiti in the southern city of Daraa, which became a flashpoint of deadly protests.
In a report on Tuesday, the UN children's agency UNICEF also said children have been recruited as soldiers in the spiralling conflict that it says is threatening an entire generation of Syrians.
"As the crisis in Syria enters its third, tragic year without any end in sight, the risk of a lost generation grows every hour, every day and every month," UNICEF spokesman Patrick McCormick said in Geneva.
The agency said nearly two million children in Syria under the age of 18 were in dire need of aid, about 800,000 under 14 were internally displaced and that more than 500,000 children have fled the violence as refugees.