The Central African Republic (CAR) will take legal action against French soldiers accused of raping children in exchange for food at a refugee camp, the country's justice minister has said.
"Legal action will be pursued ... These are still very serious acts," said Minister Aristide Sokambi on Wednesday, insisting his nation was not targeting France but individual soldiers.
Several children — the youngest just nine — allege that 14 soldiers dispatched to the impoverished nation as part of a peacekeeping force sexually abused some of them in exchange for food between December 2013 and June 2014.
"We regret the fact we were not brought into these investigations despite the cooperation agreements we have with France," Sokambi added. "So I have instructed the public prosecutor to open a probe and seek the evidence already at the disposal of the French."
French troops were deployed to the CAR in December 2013 to help African Union peacekeepers restore order after a bout of sectarian violence triggered by a coup earlier that year, when mostly Muslim Seleka rebels seized power in the majority Christian country. Hundreds of troops were stationed at Bangui's M'Poko airport, which was transformed into a giant refugee camp. Nearly 900,000 people have been displaced and thousands were killed in the conflict. Hunger in the camp became so widespread that riots often broke out when food was distributed.
Prosecutors in Paris have opened an investigation into the reports of sexual abuse, with France's defense ministry pledging to take "all the measures necessary for the truth to come out."
The ministry has denied attempting to cover up a potentially devastating scandal and said it immediately launched a probe into the case, sending police investigators to the former French colony on August 1.
The allegations were contained in an internal United Nations report that was leaked to French authorities last summer by a U.N. official. United Nations spokesman Farhan Haq said that U.N. rights investigators had conducted a probe last year following "serious allegations" of child abuse and sexual exploitation by French troops, and had suspended a staff member for leaking the report in July.
The report was given to The Guardian newspaper by the US-based advocacy group AIDS-Free World, which is calling for a commission of inquiry to be set up on sexual misconduct by peacekeepers.
Paula Donovan, co-director of AIDS-Free World, said the report detailed interviews with six children, aged eight to 15, who approached the French soldiers to ask for food.
"The children were saying that they were hungry and they thought that they could get some food from the soldiers. The answer was 'if you do this, then I will give you food'," Donovan told AFP news agency.
The U.N. employee accused of the leak, Swedish national Anders Kompass, is based in Geneva and turned the report over to French authorities because his bosses had failed to take action, The Guardian reported.
He has been suspended and faces dismissal for breaching protocol, the paper said.
But UN officials said Kompass passed on the confidential document before it was presented to senior officials in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, suggesting that senior UN officials were not even aware of the report's findings when it was leaked.
Al Jazeera and wire services