Paris (AFP) - Judges in France will investigate claims that French soldiers raped children in the Central African Republic, the state prosecutor announced Thursday.
Fourteen soldiers have been placed under investigation following statements by six children aged between nine and 13 that some were sexually abused by French peacekeepers between December 2013 and June 2014.
The case has been opened "against unnamed persons for carrying out the rape of minors" and "abusing the authority conferred by their functions", prosecutor Francois Molins said in a statement.
It has been almost a year since the French authorities opened an initial investigation after receiving a leaked internal United Nations report in July 2014.
But despite sending police to the Central African Republic to investigate in August, no children or soldiers were questioned and the allegations were never made public.
It was only after they were revealed by The Guardian newspaper last month that the full investigation was launched.
Both the French government and UN have denied trying to cover up the potentially devastating scandal, but Anders Kompass, the Swedish UN aid official who leaked the report to France was suspended from his job for "breach of protocol". He has since been reinstated.
The French prosecutor said Thursday he wanted to wait until he had spoken to the female UN investigator who wrote the report before launching the investigation, but that the United Nations had refused to lift the UN worker's diplomatic immunity status as required for a formal interview.
Molins said he instead received written evidence from the UN investigator on April 29.
He did not draw any connection to the fact that April 29 was also the day the story was published in The Guardian.
French NGO Innocence in Danger, which works with child victims of violence, said it would take part as a civil party in the judicial investigation.
"(We) intend to verify that the ministry of defence, which was advised of this affair several months ago, has not treated the case lightly by not suspending the accused soldiers," said the NGO's lawyer, Olivier Morice.
- French flag 'sullied' -
"If someone has sullied the flag, because that is what this amounts to, they must say so immediately, because it is treason against their comrades, the image of France and the army's mission," said Defence Minster Jean-Yves Le Drian earlier this week.
The Central African Republic government said on Wednesday that it would launch its own legal action against the French soldiers.
"We regret the fact we were not brought into these investigations despite the cooperation agreements we have with France," said Justice Minister Aristide Sokambi.
French troops were deployed to the Central African Republic in December 2013 to help African Union peacekeepers restore order after a bout of sectarian bloodletting triggered by a coup.
Hundreds of troops were stationed outside the capital Bangui at M'Poko airport, which was transformed into a giant refugee camp.
Most of the displaced families living amid the abandoned planes had lost everything in the conflict, which pitted mainly Muslim rebels against vigilantes from the majority Christian population
Thousands were killed and nearly 900,000 people displaced.
Hunger in M'Poko became so widespread that riots often broke out when food was distributed.
"There was a whole world that revolved not just around the French soldiers, but also the European force, especially at night-time," a UN diplomat in Bangui told AFP last week on condition of anonymity.
"Everyone knows there were groups of young women, especially, who took pleasure from being with the European troops based in the airport area, in exchange for biscuits or sardines," he said.