Paris (AFP) - President Francois Hollande has 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 Thursday, 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.
According to The Guardian, the UN employee accused of the leak, Swedish national Anders Kompass, turned the report over to French authorities because his bosses had failed to take action, and has since been suspended.
UN spokesman Farhan Haq confirmed that UN rights investigators had conducted a probe last year following "serious allegations" of child abuse and sexual exploitation by French troops, and that an unnamed staff member had been suspended for leaking the report.
AIDS-Free World is pushing for a commission of inquiry to shed light on sexual misconduct by peacekeepers and has accused the UN of covering up crimes committed by troops sent in to protect civilians.
Amnesty International said the allegations "reinforce the need to put an end to impunity for crimes under international law committed during the conflict, no matter who those suspected of criminal responsibility may be".
The attorney general of the Central African Republic said the allegations were "extremely serious" and slammed the UN for failing to tell his government of the claims.
"NGOs and UN bodies took to the field without informing us, we don't understand why," Ghislain Gresenguet said, adding that he had opened an investigation.
A member of the Central African Republic's government who wished to remain anonymous said that if true, the allegations were "horrible and unacceptable".
"French soldiers cannot behave like this in a country where they came to help civilians."
If verified, this would not be the first sexual abuse scandal to hit peacekeeping forces -- examples abound, including in Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast and Somalia.
- Fears for CAR peace efforts -
The allegations, if proven, will not only affect the French army but also the Central African Republic itself, which is trying to find a way out of a conflict that has killed thousands and displaced nearly 900,000 people.
The violence has largely pitted the Christian majority against mainly Muslim Seleka rebels who led the March 2013 coup against former leader Francois Bozize.
"Overall, I know that the French military presence has been helpful," said David Smith, an expert on the Central African Republic.
"If they hadn't been there, the airport couldn't have stayed open and that would have meant no emergency aid could have come in, no medical supplies, food...
"The hopes for success with the peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic are weak at the best of times. Moving the French out of there would make it even weaker," he added.