, PARIS, May 1- President Francois Hollande vowed to “show no mercy” if French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic are found guilty of having sexually assaulted hungry children in exchange for food.
According to a French judicial source, 14 soldiers dispatched to the chaos ridden nation to restore order after a 2013 coup are implicated in a probe into the alleged sexual abuse of several children there — the youngest just nine — who had begged for something to eat.
“If some soldiers have behaved badly, I will show no mercy,” Hollande told reporters a day after The Guardian newspaper broke the story.
Soldiers from Chad and Equatorial Guinea are also accused in the leaked UN report that implicates French troops, said Paula Donovan of the AIDS-Free World advocacy group.
“One of the children interviewed said that he had seen his friend, aged 9 or 10, with 2 soldiers from Equatorial Guinea,” Donovan told AFP by e-mail.
“The friend performed fellatio and was sodomised by one soldier while the other kept watch, and then the soldiers exchanged roles.”
Another child “reported witnessing his friend being sodomised by two Chadian soldiers while a third Chadian soldier watched,” she added.
– ‘Not hiding the facts’ –
The French defence ministry denied attempting to cover up the potentially devastating scandal following revelations it was made aware of the allegations in July last year, when it received the leaked UN report on the subject.
The abuse reportedly took place at a centre for displaced people near the airport of the Central African capital Bangui between December 2013 — when the French operation began — and June 2014.
“The children were saying that they were hungry and they thought that they could get some food from the soldiers. The answer was ‘if you do this, then I will give you food’,” said Donovan, co-director of AIDS Free World.
The French judicial source said that of the six children testifying against the soldiers, four say they were direct victims of sexual abuse while two others witnessed it.
The ministry said it immediately launched a probe into the case when it received the news, sending investigators to the former French colony last August, but the damning allegations only emerged this week in British newspaper The Guardian.
“There is no desire to hide anything,” Pierre Bayle, a defence ministry spokesman, told reporters on Thursday.
“We are trying to verify the facts,” he added, while urging “great caution” over accusations that have yet to be proven.