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World News

U.N. suspends Moroccan contingent in Ivory Coast

ABIDJAN (Reuters) - The United Nations has suspended a Moroccan military contingent from its peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast while it investigates allegations of widespread sexual abuse, the world body said on Saturday.

Moroccan troops of the United Nations Mission in Cote d'Ivoire (ONUCI) at the new force rebel headquarters, in Bouake, central Ivory Coast, January 25, 2007. The United Nations has suspended a Moroccan military contingent from its peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast while it investigates allegations of widespread sexual abuse, the world body said on Saturday. REUTERS/Thierry Gouegnon

Soldiers from the 734-strong battalion are alleged to have sexually abused large numbers of girls as young as 13 over a three-year period as units rotated through the West African country, U.N. officials said.

A statement from the world body said the entire battalion had been suspended pending an investigation and confined to their barracks in Bouake, the main city in the northern half of the country controlled by rebels since a 2002-2003 civil war.

One U.N. source in Abidjan who spoke on condition of anonymity told Reuters the girls had sought sex with the peacekeepers for money and some had since had children by them.

“They offered themselves for sexual favors to the Moroccans. This has been going on for a while. I think one of the babies is already over a year old. One of the girls is pregnant now but she was still offering her services,” the source said.

Spokesman for the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast (ONUCI), Hamadoun Toure, said the allegations had come to light after the mission ran a campaign against sexual exploitation in which it asked local people to inform it about abuses.

It then sent a team to carry out interviews and gather information after locals began to make complaints.

“(The suspension) means they don’t participate in our operations,” he said. “Those who are found guilty will be sent back home.”

ZERO TOLERANCE

The Ivory Coast mission numbers just over 9,000 uniformed personnel from more than 40 countries. Moroccans make up the bulk of the force in Bouake with some Bangladeshi police, Pakistani engineers and Ghanaian medical personnel.

The peacekeepers, backed by troops from former colonial power France, are in the world’s top cocoa grower to support a peace process that was revived in March by an agreement between President Laurent Gbagbo and rebel leader Guillaume Soro.

Over the last few years as peacekeeping has expanded, reports of abuse have mounted in various African nations, especially the Democratic Republic of the Congo, despite the “zero-tolerance” policy declared by the United Nations.

All U.N. Blue Helmets are banned from having sexual relations with locals and those serving in Ivory Coast attend training seminars on its code of conduct for peacekeepers.

Local residents in Bouake said they were unaware of the accusations against the Moroccan contingent or their suspension.

The U.N. mission has generally been well-accepted in the rebel-held north but civilian and military staff working in the government south have occasionally been attacked or obstructed in their work by youths loyal to President Gbagbo.

The United Nations ignored sexual exploitation by peacekeepers and other field staff for decades, launching a crackdown only in recent years after reports of abuse in Congo.

A 2005 U.N. report said soldiers should be punished for any abuse, their pay docked and a fund set up to assist any women and girls they impregnated. But member nations have not agreed.

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