More than 100 girls and women have come forward with new sexual abuse accusations against international peacekeepers and French troops in Central African Republic, the United Nations reported on Thursday.
UN Spokesman Stephane Dujarric said that a UN team in Kemo prefecture, east of the capital Bangui, interviewed 108 alleged victims of sexual abuse and the vast majority of them were minors.
Dujarric also said that the UN could not confirm a report by the US-based advocacy group, AIDS-Free World, that three girls told the UN they were taken to a French military camp, tied up, undressed and forced by a commander to have sex with a dog but said that an investigation is ongoing.
AIDS-Free World reported that each girl was given 5,000 Central African Francs, worth about $9, after having sex with the dog. A fourth girl later died of an unknown illness.
The UN has been in the spotlight for months over dozens of allegations of child rape and other sexual abuses by its peacekeepers, especially those based in Central African Republic, which has faced sectarian violence since 2013. There have been similar allegations against the French force known as Sangaris, which operates independently in the country.
UN Secretary General Ban-Ki moon said that he was "shocked to the core" by the latest allegations.
"Yesterday, the Central African Republic inaugurated a new democratically elected President, marking the end of a transition period," Ban said.
"The interventions of the international community helped save the CAR from an unspeakable fate. Yet we must face the fact that a number of troops who were sent to protect people instead acted with hearts of darkness," he added.
The revelations dramatically expand an already alarming scandal involving troops sent to protect civilians in the world's hotspots who become predators instead.
The allegations date from 2013 through last year and far eclipse the 22 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation in Central African Republic in 2015 that the UN reported earlier this month.
The Central African Republic launched a probe into the alleged sex crimes by French troops on May 7, with Justice Minister Aristide Sokambi saying "Legal action will be pursued. These are still very serious acts."
France’s UN Ambassador Francois Delattre described the allegations as "sickening and odius" and pledged for "exemplary disciplinary action" in addition to a criminal response if the claims are proven true.
AIDS-Free World, which first reported the new allegations on Wednesday night, said that 98 girls in Central African Republic had reported being sexually abused between 2013 and 2015 by perpetrators who have left the country.
The group also said that information on the alleged rape of a 16-year-old girl by a Congolese peacekeeper only three days ago in a hotel room in a different part of the country has been turned over to the UN.
The mother of the 16-year-old girl informed local police that a Congolese UN peacekeeper raped her daughter in a hotel room Monday afternoon. The police questioned the soldier in the presence of his commander and AIDS-Free World said he confirmed that he "had sexual intercourse" with the victim several times and paid her between 2,000 and 5,000 Central African Francs.
"Obviously that's just the top of the iceberg," co-director of AIDS-Free World and its Code Blue Campaign against sexual abuse Paula Donovan said on Thursday when asked about the new allegations.
On Thursday, the United Nations called the allegations that emerged of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers and French troops in the Central African Republic, "extremely troubling."
AIDS-Free World called the information it received "shocking," adding that the UN children's agency UNICEF interviewed 98 girls who reported being sexually abused two weeks ago.
The group said a delegation from the UN peacekeeping mission on Saturday met local leaders and victims who alleged that troops from France and Gabon had sexually abused girls. Some victims left the area because they were stigmatised by the community, it added.
The UN human rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein described the new allegations as "sickening" and said that Burundi, Gabon and France whose peacekeepers are accused have been formally notified.
Al Hussein added that government must do more to stop abuse and hold their troops accountable "otherwise this awful cycle of abuse will never end."
The UN "is shining a spotlight on these despicable, depraved and deeply disturbing allegations" and stressed that its actions must be matched by those of member states, "who alone have the power to discipline their forces with consequences," Ban said.
"This is essential to restoring trust in the invaluable institution of peacekeeping and — even more importantly — to provide a full measure of justice and healing to the affected communities," he added.
A total of 122 countries contribute 125,000 troops and police to the UN's peacekeeping missions worldwide.
The UN has more than 100,000 peacekeepers deployed in 16 missions around the world.
The UN Security Council, which authorises all UN peacekeeping operations, said in a statement that it was "disgusted" by the latest allegations and called for an urgent investigation and those responsible to be held accountable.
A UN team was sent to gather information about allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation by UN and non-UN forces as well as civilians in Kemo prefecture, Dujarric said, adding that the allegations also included abuses by local armed groups.
Dujarric stated that for the first time the UN would be jointly investigating the allegations with Burundi and Gabon.
The UN peacekeeping department said that the UN has recently reported that 25 allegations of sexual abuse and exploitation were registered with the UN mission in CAR in January and February, mostly from previous years compared with a total six of allegations in the 15 other UN peacekeeping missions in the first two months of this year.
Congolese soldiers based in Bambari have been also accused of sexual abuse and exploitation and a Congolese battalion was sent home last month.
On Thursday, United States Ambassador Samantha Power, who was in CAR for the president's inauguration, visited the town of Bambari to talk to the families of the victims.
Power said that she was "sickened" by the latest allegations and it was "gut-wrenching" to listen to families talk about the victims’ "pain and suffering - and the acute sense of betrayal."
In an interview before the bestiality allegations were disclosed, UN peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous denounced the wave of allegations as "abominable."
"I am pushing for two ideas: firstly, contributor countries must agree to hold court martials on the spot, where their troops are serving," Ladsous said in Central Africa's capital Bangui.
"Secondly, when Blue Helmets are recruited, DNA samples should be taken - on a confidential basis," he added, explaining these biological records could prove crucial to establishing the truth of any future allegations.
There were 99 new allegations of sexual exploitation or sexual abuse against United Nations staff members in 2015, increasing from the 80 allegations in 2014, according to the new UN report.
The United Nations mission MINUSCA said last December that at least 785 people were affected by 775 cases of violations and abuses within an 8 month period in 2014.