NEW YORK • The United Nations is investigating a litany of "sickening" new allegations that peacekeepers from at least three countries sexually abused civilians in the Central African Republic, including more than 100 girls in one prefecture.
The top human rights official at the UN, Mr Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, said in a statement that "major efforts were already under way to investigate allegations uncovered by a series of UN teams sent to the region over the past two weeks".
Mr Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon, told reporters on Thursday that Mr Ban had been "shocked to the core" by the new allegations and that the Security Council was to receive a private briefing on them.
Later that day, the Security Council president for March, Mr Ismael Abraao Gaspar Martins of Angola, told reporters the council had decided "a full and urgent investigation" was required, adding that "when we say zero tolerance, we mean it, especially when it comes to children".
The allegations date from 2013, implicate troops from France, Gabon and Burundi, and include at least 108 girls from Kemo Prefecture. Mr Dujarric said "the vast majority of cases involve minors".
VITAL TO PROTECT VICTIMS
We are taking these allegations - some of which are particularly odious - extremely seriously. It is vital that the victims are protected and receive all necessary care.
MR ZEID RA'AD AL-HUSSEIN, the UN's top human rights official.
If they are confirmed, they would significantly expand the scope of sexual abuse committed by international peacekeepers in the Central African Republic, one of the world's poorest and most dysfunctional countries, roiled by civil strife for years.
"We must face the fact that a number of troops sent to protect people instead acted with hearts of darkness," Mr Dujarric said.
Earlier disclosures in the sex abuse scandal led to a high-level shake-up last year at the UN peacekeeping mission in the country. And it has been a catalyst for a toughened policy by Mr Ban on peacekeeper behaviour and oversight, which was endorsed by the Security Council in a resolution passed less than three weeks ago.
"The UN investigation into these sickening allegations, which suggest sexual abuse and exploitation of a large number of women and girls, must leave no stone unturned," Mr al-Hussein said.
"We are taking these allegations - some of which are particularly odious - extremely seriously. It is vital that the victims are protected and receive all necessary care."
He issued the statement after advocacy group Aids-Free World first disclosed the new allegations on Wednesday night, based on what its co-director Paula Donovan described as leaked internal UN correspondence.
The allegations, the group said, included a 2014 episode in which four girls were tied up and undressed inside a camp run by France's Sangaris force, which is independent of the UN peacekeeping mission.
The girls were "forced to have sex with a dog", Aids-Free World said.
Mr Dujarric declined to confirm details. "At this point these are allegations," he said. "We are interviewing as many alleged victims as possible with the greatest possible care."
He said the UN had requested that officials from France, Burundi and Gabon undertake investigations.
He added that the "exact number and nature of these extremely troubling allegations are still being determined".
France, which has been investigating a separate set of sex abuse accusations against some of its Central African Republic peacekeepers dating to 2013, also called the new allegations "sickening and odious" in a statement from its UN ambassador, Mr Francois Delattre.
"The French authorities are determined to shed full light on these grave allegations, in cooperation with the UN and the Central African Republic," he said.
NEW YORK TIMES