French child abuse accused in Burkina Faso were special forces

French soldiers patrolling a street in Bangui.
French soldiers patrolling a street in Bangui. PHOTO: AFP

PARIS (AFP) - The French soldiers accused of sexually abusing children in Burkina Faso were members of an elite special forces unit, a source close to the investigation told AFP on Wednesday.

The two men, aged 36 and 38, have been charged with sexually assaulting two girls aged three and five at a hotel swimming pool in the capital Ouagadougou on Sunday, the source said.

France has applied for the two men to be repatriated “quickly” from the west African country to face trial.

“We have contacted the Burkina judicial authorities so that the repatriation is done quickly and justice can act,” said government spokesman Stephane Le Foll.

The swift response contrasts starkly with the response to another alleged child sex abuse scandal involving French troops in Central African Republic that only came to light after it was leaked to the British press.

The two soldiers in Burkina Faso met the mother of the youngest girl at the swimming pool and were invited to her home for a drink, according to the source close to the investigation.

One of the two men left behind his GoPro portable camera, on which the mother found images from the swimming pool in which the soldiers were allegedly touching the girls, the source said.

The mother took the “fairly long” film to the French embassy, and it was later seen by the father of the other child.

“There was a soldier who filmed the scene with a camera while the second touched (the girl),” a senior police officer in Burkina Faso told AFP.

The French embassy alerted the local police, who have opened an inquiry.

Paris prosecutors opened their own investigation on Tuesday, while the defence ministry said the military was also looking into the allegations.

“French forces are engaged in a fight against terrorism (in Burkina Faso), they are there to protect the population,” said Le Foll.

“The image of the army is at stake, the image of France.”

MILITARY POLICE INVESTGATING

French military police, responsible for investigations into soldiers deployed on overseas operations, were due to arrive Wednesday from Niger to investigate alongside their Burkina Faso counterparts, a judicial source said.

There are about 220 French soldiers stationed in Burkina Faso as part of an anti-terrorism operation covering five regional countries spanning from Mali to Chad.

There are about 900 French soldiers in the Central African Republic (CAR), down from an earlier deployment of 2,000.

A group of children in CAR alleged troops sexually abused minors at a centre for displaced people in the capital Bangui between December 2013 and June 2014, and 14 French soldiers are under investigation.

Some of the abuse reportedly took place after children in the conflict-wracked country begged the peacekeepers for food.

The French government’s decision to go public about the allegations in Burkina Faso, and almost immediate suspension of the two soldiers implicated in the case, contrasts with the secrecy that shrouded the scandal in CAR, which was only revealed to the public by British newspaper The Guardian.

“This is an army that confronts (such accusations) head on,” said the army’s chief of staff, General Jean-Pierre Bosser.

“Either these cases are true, which would be extremely serious,” he said.

“Or, they are not proven, which is just as serious (because)... all our soldiers will be perceived as child rapists.”