President Francois Hollande pledged to be “merciless” toward any French soldier who may have sexually abused children in the Central African Republic, after such alleged incidents were revealed on Wednesday.
“If some soldiers behaved badly, I will be merciless,” Hollande said on Thursday during a visit to Brittany. “If the facts are substantiated, there will be punishment.” He added that he would not allow the French army’s reputation to be “besmirched.”
The French defense ministry made public the alleged abuse of children after The Guardian newspaper revealed that the United Nations had been alerted to the cases and investigated them. The ministry said that according to the UN, the sexual assaults happened between December 2013 and June 2014 at a French military base near Bangui.
The allegedly abused children may have been as young as eight years old, Agence France-Presse reported, citing Paula Donovan, co-head of Aids-Free World, a New York-based non-governmental organization. Donovan based her comments on the UN investigation.
The identity of the alleged rapists is not known, Pierre Bayle, a defense ministry spokesman, said in a press conference in Paris on Thursday.
“We don’t want to hide anything,” he said. “We are verifying” the facts.
The UN report was not made public, and an official of the multilateral body was suspended after he transmitted information to French authorities, the Guardian said. The French defense ministry informed the Paris prosecutor in July 2014, when it received the UN report.
The ministry conducted its own probe last year and transmitted the findings to the Paris prosecutor on Wednesday. The prosecutor last year started its own separate investigation, which is ongoing.
“We didn’t make it public because the prosecutor is still probing the case and we didn’t want to impede the investigation,” Colonel Gilles Jaron, a spokesman for the ministry said at the press conference.
The ministry didn’t disclose any elements of the alleged abuses until the Guardian published its article, and had not intended to make them public at any point, an official at the ministry told reporters Thursday in Paris.
French troops were stationed in the African nation as part of a UN peace-keeping mission dubbed “Sangaris.” There are still a few hundred French soldiers based in the Central African Republic.