President Francois Hollande has vowed to "show no mercy" if French soldiers in the Central African Republic are found guilty of sexually assaulting children in exchange for food. The accusations follow a UN report.
French prosecutors and military authorities are currently investigating accusations of sexual abuse of children between December 2013 and June 2014 by French soldiers sent to protect civilians amid sectarian violence in the former French colony. The abuse reportedly took place at a center for displaced people near the airport of the capital, Bangui.
Speaking to reporters Thursday during a visit to the northwestern French city of Brest, Hollande said any sanctions should correspond to the gravity of the crime and "set an example."
"If some soldiers have behaved badly, I will show no mercy," Hollande said.
Children as young as eight
The Defense Ministry was made aware of the allegations in July last year after receiving a leaked report compiled by United Nations (UN) rights officials who were also stationed in the Central African Republic.
According to the report, some 10 children, aged eight to 15, alleged that French soldiers had sexually abused them in exchange for food, and in some cases under threat.
The Defense Ministry said an inquiry was launched immediately after it received the reports, and police investigators had traveled to the Central African Republic on August 1 to investigate the allegations.
'Not hiding facts'
The investigation was only made public Wednesday, however, after The Guardian broke the story. The British newspaper received the report from a co-director of the advocacy group AIDS-Free World, Paula Donovan.
"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,'" Donovan said.
The French Defense Ministry has denied trying to cover up the potentially devastating scandal, urging "great caution" on the unproven accusations.
"We are not hiding the facts, we are trying to verify the facts," Pierre Bayle, a spokesman for the French Defense Ministry said.
ksb/jil (AFP, AP)