France's Hollande vows no mercy to soldiers if African child abuse proven

PARIS/UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) - President Francois Hollande vowed on Thursday to make an example of any French troops found guilty of child sex abuse in Central African Republic as an internal U.N. report suggested that French, Chadian and Equatorial Guinea troops were implicated.

French President Francois Hollande arrives to deliver a speech after a defence council meeting at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, April 29, 2015. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes

The allegations, which came to light this week due to an internal U.N. report summarizing interviews with victims, risks damaging the reputation of France’s peacekeeping operations in Africa. Reuters obtained the U.N. report on Thursday, though the Guardian newspaper was the first to report on the charges.

The report suggests that at least 13 French soldiers, two soldiers from Equatorial Guinea and three Chadian troops had been involved in alleged abuse between December 2013 and June 2014. Subsequent French inquiries identified some of them, a French judicial source said, though none had been questioned.

The 6-page report said the child victims interviewed alleged they had performed oral sex on the French troops, while accusing soldiers from Equatorial Guinea and Chad of sodomizing children.

“If this information is confirmed ... the punishment will be proportionate to the deeds. If they are serious, the punishment will be harsh,” Hollande told reporters during a visit in western France. “I will be implacable.”

There was no immediate reaction from officials in Chad and Equatorial Guinea.

Hollande is a strong advocate of using the French military to secure peace in ex-colonies such as Central African Republic or Mali, where he received a rapturous welcome in 2013 after France intervened to halt an Islamist insurgency.

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France’s Defence Ministry said the abuse was alleged to have taken place at a centre for displaced people at M’Poko airport in the capital Bangui and involved about 10 children. It said it would take “all necessary measures” to establish the truth.

“It is unacceptable that kids less than 10 years old are raped like this by those sent there to protect the population,” Remy Djamouss, head of the local children’s rights agency CPDE, said in Bangui.

French prosecutors will ask for an internal French army report on the matter to be declassified, the judicial source said. The Bangui public prosecutor said he had also opened an investigation.

France intervened in Central African Republic, a former French colony, some 18 months ago to stem violence between Christian militias and largely Muslim Seleka rebels who had seized power. It started withdrawing some of its 2,000 troops this year, handing over to U.N. peace keepers.

A spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon confirmed on Wednesday that the U.N. office for human rights in Bangui had conducted an investigation in late spring of 2014.

He said a U.N. staff member had admitted leaking an unredacted report on the investigation before it reached top management in the U.N.’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). He said that was “a serious breach of protocol” that could endanger victims.

But Bea Edwards, head of the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower advocacy protection group, rejected Haq’s criticism of the U.N. staffer, saying OHCHR had the report for weeks and did nothing.

“As soon as (the staffer) was aware of the report and the lack of action, he contacted French law enforcement,” she told Reuters. “Within days, investigators were in the CAR.”

Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry and John Irish in Paris, Crispin Dembassa-Kette in Bangui, Joe Bavier in Dakar and other reporters in the region; writing by Mark John; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Dan Grebler