United Nation's peacekeepers in Central African Republic were hit on Wednesday with fresh accusations of sex abuses uncovered by a Thomson Reuters Foundation investigation amid growing concern about a failure to combat sexual misconduct.
Three teenage girls displaced from their homes by fighting in the strife-torn country told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that they had sex with Congolese peacekeepers over several weeks, resulting in at least two pregnancies.
The girls, aged between 14 and 17, live in temporary straw shelters in camps for internally displaced people (IDPs) close to where over 500 UN. peacekeepers, mainly from DemocraticRepublic of Congo, Bangladesh and Cameroon are posted.
The minimum age of sexual consent in Central African Republic is 18. Sexual relations between peacekeepers and civilians are banned under UN protocol.
The accusations are the latest in a series of allegations against the 11,000-strong force known as MINUSCA, which has been operational in the country since April 2014.
The peacekeeping force, whose mandate refers to "specific protection for women and children", became mired in a series of sex abuse scandals earlier this year with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon vowing to crackdown on sexual abuse.
One of the girls who spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation said she was 14 years old. She has given birth to a baby since her relationship with a Congolese soldier began.
Another girl, aged 17, who is now seven months pregnant, said the peacekeeper used to come regularly.
"He used to give me money, but he has not been to see me recently," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview in the thatched wooden shelter where she now lives.
Promises to investigate
These girls and a number of other women spoke to the Thomson Reuters Foundation this week after eyewitnesses said they saw peacekeepers entering the camps in Bambari, 380 km (235 miles)northeast of the capital Bangui.
In April this year it was revealed that soldiers from Democratic Republic of Congo and other contributing countries, including Equatorial Guinea and Chad, together with French forces, had assaulted several children over a six month period.
The scandals escalated and prompted the UN in August to replace the head of the UN stabilisation force in Central African Republic, Senegal's Babacar Gaye, with Gabonese diplomat Parfait Onanga-Anyanga.
But the allegations of sexual misconduct have not stopped.
In September the United Nations said it had received a new allegation of sexual abuse against a UN peacekeeper in Central African Republic.
Presented with the Thomson Reuters Foundation's findings on Wednesday, Diane Corner, Deputy Special Representative to the Secretary General in Bangui said the allegations of under-age sex would be thoroughly investigated.
"This is completely unacceptable behaviour by MINUSCA peacekeepers," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation at the mission's headquarters in Bangui.
She added that MINUSCA would treat the cases as allegations until it had established firmer details.
From the United Nations in New York, MINUSCA said in a draft of a statement that it would dispatch a multifunctional team to Bambari to gather facts and take immediate preventive and disciplinary measures as well as corrective action against misconduct.
Onanga-Anyanga said "any single incident of abuse was utterly abhorrent" and expressed sadness that such reports continue to emerge despite MINUSCA's transparency and zero tolerance policies and efforts to prevent such misconduct, the statement said.
Aside from those revealed by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, Corner said she was now aware of 18 cases of sexual abuse by UN peacekeepers in the 18 months since its mandate came into force, nine of which involved children.
MINUSCA was set up to help stabilise Central African Republic after it was plunged into turmoil in early 2013 when Muslim rebels from a group called Seleka seized power in the majority-Christian country, provoked a violent backlash.
Seleka handed power to a transitional government in 2014 under international pressure and the country is due to hold presidential and parliamentary elections on Dec. 13 after violence postponed planned October votes.