PARIS — France's president promised tough punishment for any soldier found guilty of sexually assaulting children in Central African Republic, as the government struggles with allegations that tarnish the image of French troops protecting civilians in danger zones.
Prosecutors and military authorities are investigating accusations that French soldiers sexually abused about 10 boys in 2013-14 in the former French colony when France launched a military operation to quell sectarian violence. The investigations have been underway since last July but were only made public Wednesday. The French government has not explained why the investigation was kept quiet.
Military officials refused Thursday to say whether the soldiers have been identified or whether any were still serving in Central African Republic. France sent troops to the country in December 2013 and the U.N. set up a 12,000-strong peacekeeping force in September.
It's also unclear what happened to the children, who described alleged rape and other sexual abuse by about 16 soldiers to U.N. officials in May and June last year, according to Paula Donovan of activist group AIDS-Free World.
The U.N. says the investigation is now in the hands of French prosecutors.
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."
Military officials insist there was no effort to hide anything in the case.
"For the moment, we don't know if the facts have been proven," military spokesman Col. Gilles Jaron said Thursday, stressing the importance of the French military operation in limiting the bloodshed in Central African Republic.