BANGUI, Central African Republic – Residents of a squalid refugee camp said Thursday that French soldiers tasked with protecting civilians had sexually abused boys as young as 9 years old, luring the children with army rations and small change when their families had nothing to feed them.
The accounts given to The Associated Press by one of the boys' mother and another woman living in the camp came a day after French authorities acknowledged that investigations into the allegations had been underway for months. The children — who described to investigators last year how they were given bottles of water after being sodomized — are still living in the refugee camp, relatives said.
The French government has not explained why the probe was kept quiet, though France's president promised tough punishment for any soldier found guilty. The probe came to light Wednesday in a report in Britain's the Guardian newspaper after the alleged whistleblower at the United Nations was removed from his duties.
Details also emerged Thursday of similar accusations against soldiers from Chad and Equatorial Guinea.
"For the moment, we don't know if the facts have been proven," French military spokesman Col. Gilles Jaron said Thursday, stressing the importance of the French military operation in limiting the bloodshed in Central African Republic where thousands died amid fighting between Muslims and Christians.
France, the former colonizer of Central African Republic, sent several thousand additional troops to Bangui in late 2013 and in early 2014 amid sectarian violence that prompted tens of thousands to seek refuge on the grounds of the capital's airport.
The mother of one of the children told AP that her son was just 9 years old when he was assaulted by French soldiers. She spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to identify her son as a victim of sexual abuse.
Her family had fled to the airport the first day of the sectarian clashes in December 2013, and she and her son are still living there.
"The children were vulnerable because they were hungry and their parents had nothing to give them, so the children were forced to ask the soldiers for food," she recalled.
"They took advantage of the children forcing them to perform oral sex and also sodomizing them," she said. "The moaning of children in the area often started around 10 p.m. or 11 p.m."
Another resident said other abused children ranged in age from 10 years old to 13.
"In exchange for cookies, the soldiers demanded oral sex," she said, recounting what the children told her. "Afterward they were given bottles of water. They even sodomized the children."
Paula Donovan, whose group AIDS-Free World has been looking into abuse by peacekeeping personnel, said she had been given a copy of the U.N. internal report that detailed the accusations. She said that 16 soldiers were cited, including one or two who the children said had been on the lookout while the abuses happened.
Children also accused soldiers from Chad and Equatorial Guinea, Donovan said. "A child reported that he had watched from a hiding place as his friend was raped by two soldiers from Equatorial Guinea," she said in an email. "One soldier stood watch while the other demanded oral sex and then sodomized the boy, and then the two soldiers switched roles."
She added, "At another point in the interviews, a boy reported seeing a child he knew being sodomized by two soldiers from Chad while a third Chadian soldier watched."
French military officials refused Thursday to say whether the soldiers have been identified or whether any were still serving in Central African Republic.
The U.N. later set up a 12,000-strong peacekeeping force in September, taking over from regional peacekeepers who hailed from neighboring countries. The U.N. says the investigation is now in the hands of French prosecutors. The chief prosecutor in Bangui's capital says a local inquiry is being launched as well.
French President Francois Hollande, speaking Thursday to reporters in western France, said if the allegations are proven true, the sanctions against the soldiers should be "very serious" and "set an example."
About 18,000 people are still living on the grounds of the airport nearly 1½ years after the violence erupted, in some cases seeking shelter under rusty decommissioned planes. At the height of the crisis, more than 100,000 internally displaced people were living there.