FRENCH prosecutors and military authorities are investigating accusations that their soldiers in Central African Republic sexually abused children they were sent to protect.
The French probes follow an initial United Nations investigation into the allegations a year ago.
A UN worker leaked information about the investigation to French authorities last year, the UN Secretary-General’s office said in a statement. That worker, identified by the Swedish government as Anders Kompass, has been suspended and is now under internal investigation.
Central African Republic has seen unprecedented violence between Christians and Muslims since late 2013. At least 5,000 people have been killed, and about 1 million are displaced internally or have fled the country. France sent troops in late 2013 and the UN set up a 12,000-strong peacekeeping force in September last year.
In spring 2014, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in the country’s capital, Bangui, carried out a probe prompted by “serious allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse of children by French military personnel,” the UN Secretary-General’s office said on Wednesday.
The alleged abuse took place before the UN force took over. The investigation has now been passed on to French authorities, said a spokesman for the UN human rights office in Geneva, Rupert Colville.
The French government was informed of the accusations in late July 2014, the Defence Ministry said in a statement. Military authorities and the Paris prosecutor’s office opened a preliminary investigation and investigators went to Central African Republic in August.
Central African children told Unicef and other UN officials of sexual assaults by French soldiers around the M’Poko airport between December 2013 and June 2014, the French Defence Ministry said.
About 16 French soldiers were accused of abusing ten boys, between eight and 15 years old, according to Paula Donovan of activist group Aids-Free World. Some children were given small meals in exchange for sexual favours, she said.
Ms Donovan, whose group is investigating abuses by peacekeepers, claims she has seen internal UN documents about the initial probe into the Central African allegations.
She said that UN officials heard testimony from the first boy on 5 May last year, followed by others over several weeks until the last testimony was given on 24 June. It is unclear where the children, or the alleged perpetrators, are now.
If the accusations are proven true, the French Defence Ministry said it would ensure “the strictest sanctions against those responsible for what would be an intolerable attack on the values of a soldier”.
The UN high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, was the author of a lengthy report on preventing sexual exploitation by peacekeepers that the global body commissioned a decade ago after a scandal involving UN troops in Congo.
It recommended that allegations of abuse be followed by a professional investigation and that UN member states should pledge to prosecute their soldiers as if the crime was committed in their own country.