PARIS: French leader Francois Hollande on Thursday vowed to “show no mercy” if peacekeeping troops in the Central African Republic accused of raping starving children in exchange for food were found guilty.
The defense ministry denied attempting to cover up the potentially devastating scandal following revelations it was made aware of the allegations in July last year when it received a leaked report compiled by UN officials stationed in the chaos-ridden African country.
According to the report, at least six children — the youngest just eight — alleged that French soldiers dispatched to the impoverished nation to restore order after a 2013 coup had sexually abused them in exchange for food, and in some cases under threat.
“If some soldiers have behaved badly, I will show no mercy,” Hollande told reporters.
The abuse reportedly took place at a center for displaced people near the airport of the Central African capital Bangui between December 2013 and June 2014.
The defense ministry said it immediately launched a probe into the case, sending police investigators to the former French colony on August 1 after receiving the news, but the damning allegations nevertheless only emerged this week when The Guardian newspaper broke the story.
“There is no desire to hide anything,” Pierre Bayle, a defence ministry spokesman, told reporters on Thursday.
“We are not hiding the facts, we are trying to verify the facts,” he added, while urging “great caution” on accusations that have yet to be proven.
According to The Guardian, the UN employee accused of the leak, Swedish national Anders Kompass, turned the report over to French authorities because his bosses had failed to take action.
He has been suspended and faces dismissal for breaching protocol, the paper said.
UN spokesman Farhan Haq confirmed that UN 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.
But UN officials said Kompass passed on the confidential document before it was presented to senior officials in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, suggesting that senior UN officials were not even aware of the report’s findings when it was leaked.
The report allegedly details interviews with several children, aged eight to 15, who approached French soldiers to ask for food.
“The children were saying that they were hungry and they thought that they could get some food from the soldiers. The answer was ‘if you do this, then I will give you food’,” said Paula Donovan, co-director of advocacy group AIDS-Free World that saw the report and gave it to The Guardian.
If true, the allegations will not only affect the French army but also the Central African Republic itself, which is trying to find a way out of a long conflict that has killed thousands and displaced nearly 900,000 people.
The violence has largely pitted the Christian majority against mainly Muslim Seleka rebels who led the March 2013 coup against former leader Francois Bozize.
“Overall, I know that the French military presence has been helpful,” said David Smith, a former peacekeeper on the civilian side and an expert on the Central African Republic.
“If they hadn’t been there, the airport couldn’t have stayed open and that would have meant no emergency aid could have come in, no medical supplies, food…
“The French kept the road between the port of Douala in Cameroon and Bangui open as well, also allowing emergency supplies to come in.”
“If the French pull out, if MINUSCA (UN force deployed in September) is weakened, that just makes a fragile country even more fragile,” he added.
“The hopes for success with the peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic are weak at the best of times. Moving the French out of there would make it even weaker.”