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French soldiers accused of raping children they were sent to protect

PARIS -- Paris prosecutors are investigating accusations that French soldiers in Central African Republic sexually abused children they were sent to protect.

The French probe follows an initial U.N. investigation into the allegations a year ago - both of which were kept secret until a report in the Guardian newspaper Wednesday forced officials to publicly acknowledge them.

A U.N. worker leaked information about the U.N. investigation to French authorities last year, the U.N. Secretary-General's office said in a statement. That worker, identified by the Swedish government as Swede Anders Kompass, has been suspended and is now under internal investigation.

The allegations of sexual abuse, the secretive nature of the probe and the treatment of the suspended U.N. worker all cast a new shadow on the world body, which has faced accusations of abuses by its peacekeeping forces in the past.

And the case is particularly damning for France, which sees itself as a model of human rights, and has thousands of troops around former colonies in Africa sent to protect civilian populations in conflict zones.

French President Francois Hollande and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon met in Paris on Wednesday night but refused to take questions from reporters afterward and didn't say anything about the alleged abuse in a brief public statement.

Central African Republic has seen unprecedented violence between Christians and Muslims since late 2013. At least 5,000 people have been killed, and about 1 million are displaced internally or have fled the country. France sent troops in late 2013 and the U.N. later set up a 12,000-strong peacekeeping force whose mandate was renewed this week.

Early in 2014, the U.N. Office of Human Rights in the country's capital, Bangui, carried out a probe after "serious allegations of sexual exploitation and abuse of children by French military personnel," the Secretary-General's office said Wednesday.

The U.N. investigation has now been passed on to French authorities, said a spokesman for the U.N. human rights office in Geneva, Rupert Colville. The French government was informed of the accusations in July 2014, the Defense Ministry said in a statement.

About 10 Central African children told U.N. officials in Central African Republic that they were sexually assaulted by French soldiers around the M'Poko airport between December 2013 and June 2014, the statement said.

The Paris prosecutor's office was notified and opened a preliminary investigation, and authorities went to Central African Republic in August to begin investigating.

If the accusations are proven true, the Defense Ministry said it would ensure "the strictest sanctions against those responsible for what would be an intolerable attack on the values of a soldier."

The U.N. Secretary-General's office said that the leak of the internal documents did not constitute "whistleblowing" but was a "serious breach of protocol."

"Any issue of sex abuse is a serious issue," the deputy spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, Farhan Haq, told reporters Wednesday in New York. "At the same time, there are concerns we have about the protection of witnesses and victims."

Sweden's government said it was "worrisome" if Kompass was suspended for sharing information about sexual abuse of children on an international mission.

"We are not entirely sure what Kompass is accused of or why he has been suspended," Anders Ronquist, legal chief of Sweden's Foreign Ministry, said in a statement. "The UN must have zero tolerance toward sexual abuse of children and ensure that suspicions of such abuse are investigated."

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