PARIS (Reuters) - President Francois Hollande vowed on Thursday to make an example of any French troops found guilty of child sex abuse in Central African Republic as a judicial source said as many as 14 could be implicated.
The allegations, which came to light this week when Britain's Guardian newspaper published extracts of an internal U.N. report, risks damaging the reputation of France's peacekeeping operations in Africa.
A judicial source who requested anonymity told Reuters that an initial reading of the full report suggested 14 soldiers had been involved in alleged abuse between December 2013 and June 2014. Subsequent French inquiries identified some of them, the source said, adding that none had been questioned yet.
"If this information is confirmed ... the punishment will be proportionate to the deeds. If they are serious, the punishment will be harsh," Hollande told reporters during a visit in western France. "I will be implacable."
Hollande is a strong advocate of using French military might to secure peace in ex-colonies such as Central African Republic or Mali, where he received a rapturous welcome in 2013 after France intervened to halt an Islamist insurgency.
France's Defence Ministry said the abuse was alleged to have taken place at a centre for displaced people at M’Poko airport in the capital Bangui and involved about 10 children. It said it would take "all necessary measures" to establish the truth.
"It is unacceptable that kids less than 10 years old are raped like this by those sent there to protect the population," Remy Djamouss, head of the local children's rights agency CPDE, said in Bangui.
The judicial source said soldiers of other nationalities were also implicated by the U.N. report, but gave no further details. French prosecutors will ask for an internal French army report on the matter to be declassified, the source said. The Bangui public prosecutor said he had also opened an investigation.
France intervened in Central African Republic, a former French colony, some 18 months ago to stem violence between Christian militias and largely Muslim Seleka rebels who had seized power. It started withdrawing some of its 2,000 troops this year, handing over to U.N. peacekeepers.
A spokesman for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon confirmed on Wednesday that the U.N. office for human rights in Bangui had conducted an investigation in late spring of 2014.
He said a U.N. staff member had admitted leaking an unredacted report on the investigation before it reached top management in the U.N.'s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
"This constitutes a serious breach of protocol, which, as is well known to all OHCHR officials, requires redaction of any information that could endanger victims, witnesses and investigators," he said.
(Additional reporting by Emmanuel Jarry and John Irish in Paris and Crispin Dembassa-Kette in Bangui; writing by Mark John; Editing by Kevin Liffey)