UNITED NATIONS (AP) — More than 100 girls and women have come forward with new sexual abuse accusations against international peacekeepers in Central African Republic, the U.N. said Thursday, calling allegations that a French military commander forced three girls to have sex with a dog "shocking to the core."
The revelations dramatically expand an already alarming scandal involving troops sent to protect civilians in the world's hotspots who become predators instead.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said 108 alleged victims of sexual abuse have been interviewed by a U.N. team in Kemo prefecture, east of the capital Bangui, the vast majority of them minors. The allegations date from 2013 through last year and far eclipse the 22 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation in Central African Republic in 2015 that the U.N. reported earlier this month.
Dujarric said the U.N. can't confirm a report by the U.S.-based advocacy group, AIDS-Free World, that three girls told the U.N. they were taken to a French military camp, tied up, undressed, and forced by a commander to have sex with a dog — but he said the investigation is continuing.
According to the group, each girl was given 5,000 Central African Francs, worth about $9, after having sex with the dog, including a fourth girl who later died of an unknown illness.
France's U.N. ambassador, Francois Delattre, called the allegations "sickening and odious" and promised "exemplary disciplinary action" in addition to a criminal response if they're proven true.
AIDS-Free World, which first reported the new allegations Wednesday night, said 98 girls in Central African Republic had reported being sexually abused between 2013 and 2015 by perpetrators who have left the country. The group also said information on the alleged rape of a 16-year-old girl by a Congolese peacekeeper only three days ago in a hotel room in a different part of the country has been turned over to the United Nations.
Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS-Free World and its Code Blue Campaign against sexual abuse, told The Associated Press on Thursday when asked about the new allegations: "Obviously that's just the top of the iceberg."
The United Nations has been in the spotlight for months over dozens of allegations of child rape and other sexual abuses by its peacekeepers, especially those based in Central African Republic, which has faced sectarian violence since 2013. There have been similar allegations against the French force known as Sangaris, which operates independently in the country, known as CAR.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was "shocked to the core by the latest allegations,"
"Yesterday, the Central African Republic inaugurated a new democratically elected President, marking the end of a transition period," he said. "The interventions of the international community helped save the CAR from an unspeakable fate. Yet we must face the fact that a number of troops who were sent to protect people instead acted with hearts of darkness."
The U.N. human rights chief, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, in a statement called the allegations "sickening" and said all three countries whose peacekeepers are accused — Burundi, Gabon and France — have been formally notified. He said governments must do more to stop abuse and hold their troops accountable, "otherwise this awful cycle of abuse will never end."
The secretary-general said the U.N. "is shining a spotlight on these despicable, depraved and deeply disturbing allegations" and stressed that its actions must be matched by those of member states, "who alone have the power to discipline their forces with consequences."
"This is essential to restoring trust in the invaluable institution of peacekeeping and — even more importantly — to provide a full measure of justice and healing to the affected communities," Ban said.
The United Nations has more than 100,000 peacekeepers deployed in 16 missions around the world.
The U.N. Security Council, which authorizes all U.N. peacekeeping operations, was briefed on the latest allegations and said in a statement that it is "disgusted" and wants an urgent investigation and those responsible to be held accountable.
Dujarric said last week that a U.N. team was sent to gather information about allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by U.N. and non-U.N. forces as well as civilians in Kemo prefecture. He added Wednesday that the allegations also include abuses by local armed groups.
Dujarric said that for the first time the United Nations would be jointly investigating the allegations with Burundi and Gabon.
The U.N. recently reported that 25 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation were registered with the U.N. mission in Central African Republic in January and February, most from previous years. That compares with a total of six allegations in the 15 other U.N. peacekeeping missions in the first two months of this year, the U.N. peacekeeping department said.
U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power, who was in CAR for the president's inauguration, visited the town of Bambari Thursday to talk to the families of victims. Congolese soldiers based there had been accused of sexual abuse and exploitation and last month the Congolese battalion was sent home.
Power said she was "sickened" by the latest allegations and it was "gut-wrenching" to listen to family members talk about the victims' "pain and suffering — and the acute sense of betrayal."
AIDS-Free World called the information it received "shocking." Two weeks ago, it said, the U.N. children's agency UNICEF interviewed 98 girls who reported being sexually abused.
The group said a delegation from the U.N. peacekeeping mission on Saturday met local leaders and victims who alleged that troops from France and Gabon had sexually abused girls. Some victims left the area because they were stigmatized by the community, it said.
In the latest incident, AIDS-Free World said the mother of a 16-year-old girl informed local police that a Congolese U.N. peacekeeper raped her daughter in a hotel room Monday afternoon. The police questioned the soldier in the presence of his commander and the group said he confirmed that he "had sexual intercourse" with the victim several times and paid her between 2,000 and 5,000 Central African Francs.