PARIS (Reuters) - French authorities have identified some of their troops accused of sexually abusing children in Central African Republic while there on peacekeeping duties, a French judicial source said on Thursday.
The matter, which risks damaging the reputation of France's military operations in Africa, came to light this week when Britain's Guardian newspaper published an internal U.N. report that raised allegations of the rape of boys by French troops.
The source said an initial reading of that report suggested 14 soldiers were involved in the alleged abuse, which took place between December 2013 and June 2014. Subsequent French inquiries had identified some of them, the source said, adding that no soldiers had been questioned yet.
President Francois Hollande, who has been a strong advocate of using French military muscle to help secure peace in former colonies such as Central African Republic or Mali, said anyone found guilty would be made an example of.
"If this information is confirmed ... the punishment will be proportionate to the deeds. If they are serious, the punishment will be harsh," he told reporters during a public engagement in western France.
The judicial source said soldiers of other nationalities were also implicated by the U.N. report, but gave no further details. French prosecutors will also ask for an internal French army report on the matter to be declassified.
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.
France's Defence Ministry confirmed the alleged abuse took place at a center for displaced people at M’Poko airport in the capital Bangui. It said it would take "all necessary measures" to establish the truth.
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 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."
Reporting by Chine Labbe; writing by Mark John; editing by John Irish