updated 1/3/2007 6:12:57 PM ET 2007-01-03T23:12:57

The United Nations said Wednesday it was looking into charges that U.N. peacekeepers and civilian staff were sexually abusing children as young as 12 in southern Sudan and was prepared to take strong disciplinary action.

The U.N. internal watchdog office has a team permanently based in Sudan to investigate all allegations of abuse and has sent four peacekeepers back to their home countries in the past year as a result of the team’s findings, U.N. chief spokeswoman Michele Montas said.

She spoke to reporters after The Daily Telegraph of London said Tuesday that it had gathered accounts from more than 20 young victims in the town of Juba of U.N. civilian and peacekeeping staff forcing them to have sex.

The Telegraph said the first signs of sexual exploitation of local youths in southern Sudan emerged within months of the peacekeepers’ arrival in March 2005. The U.N. Children’s Fund UNICEF drafted an internal report detailing the problem, it said.

But Montas said the UNICEF report dealt only with abuses by the Sudanese military, not U.N. peacekeepers.

Aware of abuse charges
She acknowledged, however, that the United Nations had been aware of the charges of abuse for some time and was working with local authorities and countries contributing troops to the U.N. mission in southern Sudan “to ensure that U.N. personnel adhere to the highest standards of accountability.”

“When necessary, strong disciplinary action will be taken,” she said. “The U.N. standard on this issue is clear — zero tolerance, meaning zero complacency and zero impunity.”

The newspaper report appeared on the first day of work for U.N. leader Ban Ki-moon of South Korea, who this week became the world body’s eighth secretary-general, succeeding Kofi Annan of Ghana.

There are more than 11,000 U.N. peacekeepers and police from some 70 countries in southern Sudan, enforcing a January 2005 peace agreement that ended a 21-year civil war.

The United Nations, working with the African Union, is now pressing a reluctant Sudanese government to admit thousands more peacekeepers to its western Darfur region, where a separate civil war has raged for three years.

Sexual abuse charges have surfaced for decades in U.N. peacekeeping missions and among civilian and other humanitarian staff operating around the world.

But the United Nations began seriously pursuing offenders in the past two years after reports of widespread abuse in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where it has 17,000 troops.

Since January 2004, the United Nations has investigated abuse allegations against 319 military and civilian personnel in all its missions, the world body said in late November.

It has disciplined 179 soldiers, civilians and police since then but acknowledges minors and the poor are still exploited despite its best efforts.

Copyright 2012 Thomson Reuters. Click for restrictions.

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