By Joe Bavier
KINSHASA, May 14 (Reuters) - The United Nations is investigating allegations that its peacekeepers in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo committed sexual abuses, which aid workers said involved paying children for sex.
The spokesman for the U.N. Mission in Congo (MONUC), Kemal Saiki, said on Wednesday that an investigation had been launched by the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS) but declined to give further details.
Aid workers, who asked not to be identified, said the inquiry was focusing on Indian U.N. peacekeepers accused of paying for sex with underage girls in Congo's violence-torn east.
"There are allegations and independent services are working on them," Saiki said.
He said the alleged incidents took place in North Kivu province, where U.N. troops have been policing a shaky ceasefire between rival rebel and militia factions and government troops.
The allegations have surfaced at a time when the U.N. mission is under heavy scrutiny after a recent report by Human Rights Watch accused it of covering up allegations of Pakistani and Indian troops' involvement in alleged arms and gold smuggling in eastern Congo.
MONUC Chief Alan Doss has strongly rejected the allegations and warned they could hamper peacekeeping operations in Congo and worldwide by prompting some countries to withdraw their troops.
The United Nations has consistently said OIOS inquiries have failed to turn up evidence of widespread abuse, although they have found evidence of less serious misdemeanours by individuals which has been turned over to Indian and Pakistani authorities.
The vast majority of MONUC's nearly 18,000-strong force is based in Congo's east, which has remained a violent patchwork of rebel fiefdoms and militia-controlled areas despite the official end of a 1998-2003 war.
Since its deployment in 2000, the peacekeeping force has been embroiled in a number of sex and smuggling scandals.
More than 100 U.N. peacekeepers and personnel have been killed attempting to bring peace to the vast, mineral-rich central African nation.
Experts estimate Congo's 1998-2003 war and the humanitarian catastrophe it spawned have killed 5.4 million people, mostly from hunger and disease linked to the violence. That would make it the deadliest conflict since World War Two. (For full Reuters Africa coverage and to have your say on the top issues, visit: africa.reuters.com/ ) (Reporting by Joe Bavier; Writing by Daniel Flynn: Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Giles Elgood)