Prosecutors announce investigation into claims French soldiers raped children on peacekeeping operation in Central African Republic
Kim Willsher in Paris and Sandra Laville in London
French prosecutors have ordered a criminal investigation into allegations that French peacekeeping soldiers raped children and demanded sex for food in the Central African Republic.
The decision follows revelations in the Guardian more than a week ago that a senior United Nations official had been suspended for leaking details of the alleged abuse to the French government.
The Paris prosecutor’s office said on Thursday it had decided to launch criminal proceedings after receiving a reply to its request for information from the UN about the accusations of sexual abuse by French soldiers serving with the peacekeeping operation Sangaris.
It said the investigation concerned “the rape of minors under 15 years old by persons who had abused the authority conferred upon them by their roles, and complicity in this crime”.
“Investigations will now continue under the authority of an instructing magistrate in order to get to the truth of the accusations,” it declared.
France has come under increasing pressure and criticism over its apparent failure to act quickly to identify and prosecute the suspected soldiers, and claims it has been sitting on the leaked UN report detailing the alleged sexual abuse.
The UN has been criticised for taking action against Anders Kompass, the official who leaked the report to the French – sources say because he knew the UN would not take action.
Kompass, director of field operations, was suspended last month and faces an internal disciplinary disciplinary hearing for breaching UN protocols.
On Wednesday an appeal tribunal found that the suspension of Kompass was unlawful and ordered his reinstatement while an internal management review continues.
His leak led the French to start a preliminary investigation in Paris in July last year, but no action appeared to have been taken until the scandal broke last week.
In its defence, the French prosecutor’s office on Thursday accused the UN of delaying the preliminary investigation by twice rejecting French efforts to hear from the UN coordinator who wrote the abuse report, despite her own willingness to do so in Paris.
“The UN hierarchy refused this questioning, indicating that the functionary benefited from immunity that had to be lifted before any questioning,” the prosecutor’s office said.
It also cited a total of more than six months of delays in French investigators’ efforts to get answers from the author, which finally resulted in written responses received on 29 April.
On Wednesday, the CAR justice minister, Aristide Sokambi, said his country was also launching legal action against the French military suspects.
“It’s not [operation] Sangaris. It’s not the whole of France. It’s individuals, it’s soldiers and it’s against them that we will act,” Sokambi said.
“I deplore the fact that we haven’t been joined about this investigation when we have cooperation agreements with France. So I’ve instructed the public prosecutor to open an inquiry and then try to collect evidence already available to the French,” Sokambi added, saying the allegations were “extremely serious”.
The French ministry of defence said it had collected “evidence from Central African Republic children accusing French soldiers of Operation Sangaris of sexual abuse”.
The statements from abused children were taken by UN staff and “outline the facts committed against around 10 children at the M’Poko airport area between December 2013 and June 2014”, the statement said.
About 14 French soldiers are under investigation, but very few have been identified, a legal source told Le Figaro newspaper.
Kompass was suspended on full pay on 17 April for having passed the confidential report detailing the alleged attacks on young boys to France in July last year. France reportedly wrote to Kompass thanking him for reporting the alleged abuse.
France intervened in the Central African Republic in December 2013 after a rebel group overthrew President François Bozize, sparking violence between Muslim- and Christian-led militias.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians were displaced by the fighting and many took refuge in makeshift camps, one of them near the airport at the CAR capital of Bangui. This is where French troops were stationed and the alleged abuse took place. As well as the 14 French soldiers, five peacekeepers from Chad and Equatorial Guinea are accused of having demanded sex acts from hungry children in return for food.
The French president, François Hollande, has said his country will act: “If some soldiers behaved badly, I will be merciless. If this information is confirmed, there will be exemplary punishment.”
The French defence minister, Jean-Yves le Drian, said the army had carried out an internal investigation but few of the alleged perpetrators had been identified. He appealed for the soldiers involved to hand themselves in.
• The headline on this article was amended on 8 May 2015. An earlier version said incorrectly that UN soldiers had been accused of sexual abuse. The soldiers are French troops serving with a French-run mission and are not under the command of the UN peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic.