U.N. identifies 41 Burundi, Gabon troops accused of abuse in Central Africa

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - An internal United Nations inquiry has identified 25 peacekeepers from Burundi and 16 from Gabon accused of sexual abuse and exploitation in the Central African Republic in 2014 and 2015, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said on Monday.

“Responsibility for further investigations lies with Burundi and Gabon,” Dujarric said, adding that the U.N. had asked those states to interview the identified troops, who all left Central African Republic before the allegations surfaced.

The 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force there, known as MINUSCA, has been dogged by allegations of sexual abuse since its deployment in April 2014 to curb fighting between the mostly Muslim Seleka rebels and rival anti-balaka Christian militias.

Central African Republic, which holds reserves of uranium, gold and diamonds, suffered the biggest crisis in its half-century of independence in early 2013 when Seleka toppled then-President Francois Bozize.

French troops deployed in a separate intervention in the former French colony have also been accused of abuses.

The 41 troops from Gabon and Burundi were identified by 45 possible victims in Central African Republic’s Kemo prefecture, Dujarric told reporters.

However, in 83 of the 139 cases investigated by the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services (OIOS), the possible victims were unable to identify the peacekeepers they accused of abuse or exploitation or provide corroborating evidence. A further three cases were considered unreliable.

The inquiry found another eight victims described distinctive traits of peacekeepers accused of abuse, but could not identify them through photos or corroborating evidence.

A draft U.N. memo, written by the chief of the U.N. Department of Field Support’s Conduct and Discipline Unit in August citing information from the OIOS inquiry, suggested many accusations were strikingly similar and appeared to be motivated by financial gain.

The memo, seen by Reuters, said: “OIOS notes that many of the complaints followed a specific pattern of accusations; many of the complainants’ stories were nearly identical, lacked specific details and fell apart when probed. It appeared as though the complainants had memorized a script.”

The memo said a local charity tasked with referring abuse accusations to the U.N. children’s agency UNICEF had placed complainants on a monthly remuneration scheme, offering a financial incentive for people to present themselves as victims.

In December, an independent review panel criticized the United Nations for mishandling allegations of child sexual abuse by international peacekeepers, who were not under U.N. command, in Central African Republic.

“The alleged perpetrators, if allegations against them are substantiated, and, if warranted, their commanding officers, will not be accepted again for deployment in peacekeeping operations,” Dujarric said.

Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Alan Crosby