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French Government Investigates Military For Alleged Child Abuse

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The French government is investigating allegations that its soldiers abused children while serving as peacekeepers in Africa last year. The case has caused outrage and revulsion in France which places high value on both its military and its relations with its former colonies. The incidents in the Central African Republic were revealed when a United Nations report was leaked this week. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley has the story.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The U.N. report gives detailed descriptions of how children were coerced or forced into sexual acts by some of the French soldiers sent to protect them. Some of the victims was young as 9. Many were orphaned boys. The report became public this week when it was leaked to aid groups who gave it to the press. The French Defense Ministry said France had opened military and civilian investigations into the matter or last summer. Colonel Gilles Jaron spoke to the media.

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GILLES JARON: (Through interpreter) Obviously if this turns out to be true, it goes against the fundamental values of the French army and the harshest sanctions would be handed down.

BEARDSLEY: About 1,600 French soldiers deployed to Central African Republic, or C.A.R., in 2013 in a French mission aimed at stopping Christian and Muslim militias from slaughtering civilians.

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UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Yelling).

BEARDSLEY: This television footage shows thousands of civilians who fled their homes and took refuge in a large camp at the airport in the capital city of Bangui where French troops were based. The abuses were alleged to have taken place there between December 2013 and June 2014. President Francois Hollande has sent French forces to former African colonies several times, to Mali to fight Islamist extremists and to Central African Republic to quell sectarian violence. Hollande says if French soldiers behaved badly, he would be merciless.

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FRANCOISE HOLLANDE: (Through interpreter) You know the confidence I put in the army and the role they play in the world. No stain should blemish their uniform.

BEARDSLEY: The U.N. has launched its own investigation into the leaking of its human rights report about the abuse. The French government is still investigating reports of sexual abuse by its soldiers in Rwanda 21 years ago. General Dominique Trinquand is a former commander of French peacekeeping missions.

DOMINIQUE TRINQUAND: In a contract war like that, it's probably difficult to get real testimony on what's happened.

BEARDSLEY: Trinquand says French investigators may be finding it difficult to trace the orphans who claim abuse in the U.N. report. He says there are other complicating factors such as allegations that French soldiers in C.A.R. were siding with Christian fighters against Muslim. He says it's possible one of the sides used the children to discredit the troops. This week, French radio and TV reporters on the ground in C.A.R. broadcast interviews with local people in the airport camp who say they knew about the abuse. General Trinquand says if the allegations can be proved, the French soldiers will be punished, but obtaining that proof will be very difficult. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.