PARIS (AP) — French prosecutors and military authorities are investigating accusations that French soldiers in Central African Republic sexually abused children they were sent to protect.
The French probes follow an initial United Nations investigation into the allegations a year ago — all of which were kept secret until a report in the Guardian newspaper Wednesday pushed officials to publicly acknowledge them.
A U.N. worker leaked information about the U.N. investigation to French authorities last year, the U.N. Secretary-General's office said in a statement. That worker, identified by the Swedish government as Swede Anders Kompass, has been suspended and is now under internal investigation.
Central African Republic has seen unprecedented violence between Christians and Muslims since late 2013. At least 5,000 people have been killed, and about 1 million are displaced internally or have fled the country. France sent troops in late 2013 and the U.N. set up a 12,000-strong peacekeeping force in September last year.
In spring 2014, the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in the country's capital, Bangui, carried out a probe prompted by "serious allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse of children by French military personnel," the U.N. Secretary-General's office said Wednesday.
The alleged abuse took place before the U.N. force took over. The U.N. investigation has now been passed on to French authorities, said a spokesman for the U.N. human rights office in Geneva, Rupert Colville.
The French government was informed of the accusations in late July 2014, the Defense Ministry said in a statement. Military authorities and the Paris prosecutor's office opened a preliminary investigation and investigators went to Central African Republic in August.
Central African children told UNICEF and other U.N. officials in Central African Republic of sexual assaults by French soldiers around the M'Poko airport between December 2013 and June 2014, the French Defense Ministry said.
About 16 French soldiers were accused of abusing 10 boys, between eight and 15 years old, according to Paula Donovan of activist group AIDS-Free World. Some children were given small meals in exchange, she said. Donovan, whose group is investigating abuses by peacekeepers, says she has seen internal U.N. documents about the initial probe into the Central African allegations.
She told The Associated Press that U.N. officials heard testimony from the first boy May 5, followed by others over several weeks until the last testimony June 24.
It is unclear where the children are now, or the alleged perpetrators.
If the accusations are proven true, the French Defense Ministry said it would ensure "the strictest sanctions against those responsible for what would be an intolerable attack on the values of a soldier."
The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, was the author of a lengthy report on preventing sexual exploitation by peacekeepers that the global body commissioned a decade ago after a scandal involving U.N. troops in Congo.
Known as the Zeid Report, it recommended among other things that allegations of abuse be followed by a professional investigation and that U.N. member states should pledge to prosecute their soldiers as if the crime had been committed in their own country.
The allegations are especially damning for France, which sees itself as a model of human rights, and has thousands of troops around former colonies in Africa sent to protect civilian populations in conflict zones.
French President Francois Hollande and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met in Paris on Wednesday night but refused to take questions from reporters afterward and didn't say anything about the alleged abuse in a brief public statement.
The U.N. Secretary-General's office said that the leak of the internal documents did not constitute "whistleblowing" but was a "serious breach of protocol."
"Any issue of sex abuse is a serious issue," the deputy spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, Farhan Haq, told reporters Wednesday in New York. "At the same time, there are concerns we have about the protection of witnesses and victims."
Sweden's government said it was "worrisome" if Kompass was suspended for sharing information about sexual abuse of children on an international mission. Anders Ronquist, legal chief of Sweden's Foreign Ministry, said in a statement, "The U.N. must have zero tolerance toward sexual abuse of children and ensure that suspicions of such abuse are investigated."
Cara Anna at the United Nations, Frank Jordans in Berlin, Greg Keller in Paris and Karl Ritter in Stockholm contributed to this report.