Libreville (AFP) - Save the Children has urged France and the United Nations to "shed all light" on accusations that French soldiers sexually abused hungry children in the Central African Republic.
"If the facts are borne out, it is essential to take the firmest measures against those behind them," the global charity said in a statement sent to AFP on Friday.
According to a French judicial source, 14 peacekeeping soldiers deployed to the chaos-ridden nation to help restore order after a 2013 coup are implicated in a probe into the alleged sexual abuse of several children -- the youngest just nine -- who had begged for something to eat.
French President Francois Hollande vowed Thursday to "show no mercy" if "some soldiers have behaved badly", a day after British newspaper The Guardian broke the story based on a leaked UN report.
The United Nations should "ensure that the child victims of these abuses are protected and benefit from all the psycho-social support that they need," said Natasha Quist, Save The Children's director for west and central Africa, quoted in the statement in French from Dakar.
Quist urged "the United Nations and the French authorities to take all necessary measures to bring full light to bear on this affair, notably by being transparent about the investigations announced to have started."
"Humanitarian workers and elements of the peacekeeping forces have on several occasions been implicated in cases of the violation of children's rights, including rape or exchanging food for sexual favours," Save the Children said.
"Soldiers are in the front line in complex conflict situations and are often the only ones who can make sure that children's rights are protected," argued the charity.
The leaked report also accuses soldiers from Chad and Equatorial Guinea of abuses in the deeply poor, landlocked nation where an African peacekeeping mission was handed over to the United Nations in September last year.
A European Union military mission also operates in the country, ravaged since the 2013 coup by a conflict that took on an unprecedented religious dimension, pitting mainly Muslim former rebels against Christian vigilantes at the expense of the civilian population.
In the wake of the report in The Guardian, the French defence ministry on Wednesday said that the government had been alerted to accusations of sexual abuse against children by the UN High Commission for Human Rights in July 2014.
Prosecutors in Paris then opened an investigation into the reports, the ministry said, pledging to ensure that "the truth be found" and "the strongest penalties" imposed on those found guilty.