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France promises to ‘find truth’ amid Central Africa rape claims

Eric Feferberg, AFP | A file picture taken on January 19, 2014 shows a French soldier taking part in 'Operation Sangaris'

France’s defence ministry has confirmed it was investigating alleged sexual abuse against children by its soldiers serving as peacekeepers in the Central African Republic, adding that it would impose the "strongest penalties" on anyone found guilty.

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"The defence ministry has taken and will continue to take the necessary measures to allow the truth to be found," it said in a statement. "If the facts are proven, the strongest penalties will be imposed on those responsible for what would be an intolerable attack on soldiers' values."

The announcement followed a report in Britain's Guardian newspaper on Wednesday that senior UN aid worker Anders Kompass had been suspended for leaking a confidential internal report into abuse by French soldiers against children at a centre for internally displaced people in the Central African Republic's capital of Bangui.

In the wake of the Guardian report, the UN admitted that the investigation had taken place, and that an “unedited version of the report was, by a staff member’s own admission, provided unofficially by that staff member to the French authorities in late July 2014”.

‘Serious breach of protocol’

“This constitutes a serious breach of protocol,” the spokesman for the UN secretary general said, adding that the report was passed to the French authorities before it had been sent to the office of the high commissioner for human rights.

A UN source told FRANCE 24’s Sophie Pilgrim that disclosure of the unedited report breached protocol because it may have "compromised the investigation and rendered victims vulnerable to pressure from the accused state [France]".

Another source told FRANCE 24 that UN staff at the Department of Peacekeeping Operations were left puzzled by Kompass's decision to pass on the report to the French in the "very final" stages of the investigation.

"The report was just about to be published," the source said on condition of anonymity.

The source added that at the time of the leak Kompass was under investigation by the UN for having allegedly leaked classified information on Western Sahara.

Sexually exploited ‘in return for food and money’

Entitled “Sexual Abuse on Children by International Armed Forces” and stamped “Confidential” on every page, the report obtained by The Guardian details allegations of “rape and sodomy” of starving and homeless young boys by French peacekeeping troops.

The report includes interviews with the children that were carried out between May and June last year by a member of staff from the office for the UN high commissioner of human rights and a UNICEF specialist.

The boys claim they were sexually exploited in return for money and food between December 2013 and June 2014 by French troops, when the UN MINUSCA mission to CAR was being set up.

According to the Guardian, the report was passed to officials within the office for the high commission of human rights in Geneva in 2014.

But a lack of meaningful progress and continued secrecy frustrated Kompass, who has been working with the UN for 30 years, and he passed the unedited details of the investigation to the French authorities.

Following publication of the Guardian's report, a spokesman for France’s justice ministry said on Wednesday that a French prosecutor had been investigating the allegations since July 2014.

“The investigation is ongoing,” a ministry spokesman said, declining to give further details.

France launched a peacekeeping operation in the Central African Republic in December 2013, while the UN mission was approved the following April and became operational in September.

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