PARIS - President Francois Hollande on Thursday vowed to "show no mercy" if French peacekeepers in Central African Republic were found guilty of raping hungry children in exchange for food.
According to a French judicial source, several children - the youngest just nine - allege that 14 French soldiers dispatched to the impoverished nation to restore order after a 2013 coup were involved in sexually abusing some of them in exchange for food.
Of those soldiers, "very few" have actually been identified, and those that have have still not been questioned, added the source, who wished to remain anonymous.
"If some soldiers have behaved badly, I will show no mercy," Hollande told reporters.
The defence ministry denied attempting to cover up a potentially devastating scandal following revelations it had been made aware of the allegations in July last year when it received a leaked report compiled by UN officials stationed in the chaotic African country.
'Not hiding the facts'
The abuse reportedly took place at a centre for displaced people near the airport of the Central African capital Bangui between December 2013 - when the French operation began - and June 2014.
The defence ministry said it immediately launched a probe into the case, sending police investigators to the former French colony on August 1 after receiving the news, but the damning allegations nevertheless only emerged this week when The Guardian newspaper broke the story.
"There is no desire to hide anything," Pierre Bayle, a defence ministry spokesman, told reporters on Thursday.
"We are not hiding the facts, we are trying to verify the facts," he added, while urging "great caution" over accusations that have yet to be proven.
According to The Guardian, the UN employee accused of the leak, Swedish national Anders Kompass, turned the report over to French authorities because his bosses had failed to take action.
UN spokesman Farhan Haq confirmed that UN rights investigators had conducted a probe last year following "serious allegations" of child abuse and sexual exploitation by French troops.
But unnamed UN officials said Kompass leaked the confidential document to the French even before it was shown to officials in the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, suggesting they were not aware of the report's findings when it was leaked.
Central African prosecutors meanwhile said they had not been made aware of an investigation into alleged child abuse and had launched a probe after this week's revelations.
"It's not because we're in a crisis-ridden country that the law can be flouted," said Prosecutor Ghislain Gresenguet.
The report allegedly details interviews with children who approached French soldiers to ask for food.
"The children were saying that they were hungry and they thought that they could get some food from the soldiers. The answer was 'if you do this, then I will give you food'," said Paula Donovan, co-director of advocacy group AIDS-Free World that saw the report and gave it to The Guardian.
"Different kids used different language." The French judicial source said that of the six children testifying against the soldiers, four say they were direct victims of sexual abuse while two others witnessed abuse.
Fears for CAR peace efforts
If true, the allegations will not only affect the French army but also the Central African Republic itself, which is trying to find a way out of a long conflict that has killed thousands and displaced nearly 900,000 people.
The violence has largely pitted the Christian majority against mainly Muslim Seleka rebels who led the March 2013 coup against former leader Francois Bozize.
"Overall, I know that the French military presence has been helpful," said David Smith, an expert on the Central African Republic.
"If they hadn't been there, the airport couldn't have stayed open and that would have meant no emergency aid could have come in, no medical supplies, food...
"The French kept the road between the port of Douala in Cameroon and Bangui open as well, also allowing emergency supplies to come in."
"The hopes for success with the peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic are weak at the best of times. Moving the French out of there would make it even weaker," he added.
The Central African Republic had yet to react officially, but a government member who wished to remain anonymous said that if true, the allegations were "horrible and unacceptable."
"French soldiers cannot behave like this in a country where they came to help civilians."