UN announces 108 new alleged sexual abuse victims in CAR

U.N. peacekeepers patrol the street leading to Pope Francis' meeting with the Muslim community at the Koudoukou mosque in Bangui, Central African Republic in November. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

The United Nations on Thursday announced 108 new alleged victims of sexual abuse, the vast majority of them minors, by peacekeepers in Central African Republic, and it called "shocking to the core" a report that three girls said a French military commander forced them to have sex with a dog.

The revelations dramatically widened the scope of a sexual abuse scandal that has persisted for months. France's U.N. ambassador, Francois Delattre, called the allegations "sickening and odious" and promised "exemplary disciplinary action" if they're proven true.

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The latest allegations, dating from 2013 through last year, were first announced by a U.S.-based advocacy group, AIDS-Free World, late Wednesday. U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric on Thursday told reporters that the U.N. can't confirm the allegations involving a dog at this point but that investigations continue.

AIDS-Free World said Wednesday night that 98 girls in Central African Republic, also known as CAR, had reported being sexually abused between 2013 and 2015 by perpetrators who have left the country. It 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 has been turned over to the United Nations.

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 CAR.

"We must face the fact that a number of troops sent to protect people instead acted with hearts of darkness," Dujarric said Thursday.

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."

Dujarric said Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stressed that U.N. actions must be matched by those of member states, "who alone have the power to discipline their forces with real consequences."

The United Nations has more than 100,000 peacekeepers deployed in 16 missions around the world.

Dujarric said last week that a U.N. team was sent to gather information about recently reported allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by U.N. and non-U.N. forces as well as civilians in Kemo prefecture, east of the capital Bangui, in 2014 and 2015. He said in a note to correspondents late Wednesday that the new allegations went back to 2013 and included allegations against 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.

A U.N. report earlier this month said there were 69 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeepers in 2015 — 22 of them in CAR.

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.

During the delegation's visit, AIDS-Free World said the three girls reported being tied up inside a camp by a French military commander. After having sex with the dog, the group said, each girl was given 5,000 Central African Francs, or about $9.

One girl told the U.N. human rights officer that a fourth girl who later died of an unknown disease "was called 'the Sangaris' dog' by people in the community."

AIDS-Free World also said the mother of a 16-year-old girl informed local police in another part of CAR that a Congolese U.N. peacekeeper raped her daughter in a hotel room Monday afternoon.

The group said that when the soldier was questioned by police in the presence of his commander, he confirmed that he "had sexual intercourse" with the victim several times and paid her between 2,000 and 5,000 Central African Francs.

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