PARIS (AFP) - Authorities in France are investigating claims that French peacekeepers sexually abused children in the Central African Republic (CAR), the government confirmed on Wednesday.
The French government “was made aware at the end of July 2014 by the UN’s high commission for human rights of accusations by children that they had been sexually abused by French soldiers,” the defence ministry said in a statement.
An investigation was opened shortly after by Paris prosecutors, it said.
“The defence ministry has taken and will take the necessary measures to allow the truth to be found,” the statement added.
“If the facts are proven, the strongest penalties will be imposed on those responsible for what would be an intolerable attack on soldiers’ values.”
The abuse was alleged by around 10 children, the ministry said, and reportedly took place at a centre for internally displaced people near the airport of the capital Bangui between December 2013 and June 2014.
A report in Britain’s The Guardian newspaper said children as young as nine were involved, and that some were abused in exchange for food and money.
The paper said a senior UN aid worker had been suspended for leaking an internal report into the abuse.
UN spokesman Farhan Haq confirmed that its rights investigators had conducted a probe last year following “serious allegations” of child abuse and sexual exploitation by French troops, and had suspended a staff member for leaking the report in July.
‘APPALLING DISREGARD FOR VICTIMS'
The report was commissioned by the UN office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and prepared by advocacy group Aids Free World.
“The regular sex abuse by peacekeeping personnel uncovered here and the United Nations’ appalling disregard for victims are stomach-turning, but the awful truth is that this isn’t uncommon,” Paula Donovan, co-director of Aids Free World, told The Guardian.
“The UN’s instinctive response to sexual violence in its ranks – ignore, deny, cover up, dissemble – must be subjected to a truly independent commission of inquiry with total access,” she added.
The report was commissioned amid fears of sexual abuse against children last year as tens of thousands were displaced by fighting and unrest in the country.
The UN aid worker, Anders Kompass, is based in Geneva and leaked the report to French authorities because his bosses had failed to take action, The Guardian reported.
He has been suspended and faces dismissal for breaching protocol, the paper said.
The French government said prosecutors had “immediately” opened a case into the abuse after receiving the news last year, and that police investigators had travelled to the Central African Republic on Aug 1 to look into the case.
France launched its Operation Sangaris peacekeeping mission in December 2013. The UN approved its own mission the following April, which was fully operational by September.
Since December 2013, nearly 900,000 people have been displaced, including more than 460,000 who have become refugees – a full 10 percent of CAR’s population.
About half the population of 4.6 million people live in severe poverty and need humanitarian aid, while 1.5 million are considered food insecure, according to the UN.