Peacekeepers Held For Sex Crimes

The Moroccan mission to the United Nations has announced it arrested six U.N. peacekeeping soldiers in Congo accused of sexually abusing local girls and discharged the contingent's commander.

Fred Eckhard, the U.N. secretary-general's spokesman, on Monday said the announcement over the weekend showed "the Morrocan authorities attach as much importance to eradicating sexual abuse within U.N. peacekeeping missions as does the U.N."

"The mission hopes that the vigorous and public reaction of Morocco will serve as an example and that other troop contributing countries will follow," he added.

There have been more than 150 allegations of sexual exploitation of girls as young as 13 by U.N. peacekeepers in Congo.

Annan last Wednesday urged the Security Council to add at least 100 military police to the peacekeeping mission in Congo to help prevent sex abuse by the U.N. forces.

Eckhard said other measures had been taken, including improved surveillance around U.N. military camps, a curfew and the shuttering of local stores where soldiers interacted with locals.

Allegations of abuse first surfaced in 2004 and the U.N. Office of Internal Oversight Services said abuse by peacekeepers was ongoing.

According to last month's report by the U.N. watchdog agency, peacekeepers regularly had sex with Congolese women and girls, usually in exchange for food or small sums of money.

Sexual activities continued even while the investigation was continuing in the eastern town of Bunia between May and September 2004, the report said.

The United Nations currently has about 11,500 soldiers, 150 civilian police and 700 international staff in Congo trying to support the country's fragile peace process and help it move toward free elections later this year. In October, the council authorized an increase in the U.N. mission to 16,700.