French President François Hollande on Thursday promised tough punishment for any soldier found guilty of sexually assaulting children in the Central African Republic.
French prosecutors and military authorities are investigating accusations of sexual abuse of children in 2013 and 2014 by French troops sent to protect civilians amid sectarian violence in the Central African Republic. The investigation has been underway since last year but was made public only Wednesday.
Hollande, speaking to reporters in western France, said any sanctions should correspond to the gravity of the crime and "set an example."
"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.
French military officials distanced themselves from the accusations Thursday, saying they had no knowledge of any sexual abuse.
France intervened in the Central African Republic, a former French colony, some 18 months ago to stem violence between Christian militias and Séléka rebels who seized power. France started withdrawing some of its 2,000 troops this year, handing over to U.N. peacekeepers.
France's Defense Ministry confirmed that the abuse allegedly 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 conducted an investigation in late spring of 2014.