UN asks why France didn't probe sex abuse claims earlier

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UNITED NATIONS (AP) — The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations called Friday for an impartial investigation into the way that child sexual abuse allegations against French soldiers in the Central African Republic have been handled. Meanwhile, the U.N. human rights chief asked why France didn't move more quickly to pursue the claims.

The U.N. high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Raad al-Hussein, made his first public comments on the case since it was first reported late last month. His office has come under criticism for suspending the staffer who leaked the abuse claims to French authorities. A U.N. tribunal overturned the suspension this week.

Questions remain about why it took several months for U.N. and French investigations to come to light and where the accused French soldiers are now.

On Thursday, the Paris prosecutor's office said the "U.N. hierarchy" had rejected French efforts to hear from the author of a report containing the allegations. On Friday, the spokesman for the U.N. secretary-general, Stephane Dujarric, described a back-and-forth with French judicial authorities over the issue that lasted from mid-October to March 30, when the U.N. handed over a redacted copy of the report.

U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power told reporters that the sexual abuse allegations are "very credible and very disturbing" and said that "when allegations like these are made, speed is essential."

The French soldiers were in Central African Republic responding to deadly violence between Christians and Muslims. Residents of a camp for displaced persons in the country's capital, Bangui, have told The Associated Press that French soldiers tasked with protecting civilians had sexually abused boys as young as 9 years old.

Zeid, speaking Friday in Geneva, said the alleged abuses date from December 2013 until June, when he said the U.N.'s report "basically was concluded." He asked why the French military was not investigating during that time, indicating that in such cases, word gets out among the troops: "Others will know."

U.N. officials have pointed out that the allegations were made well before the U.N. peacekeeping mission took over from an African Union force in September, but the French forces had a mandate from the U.N. Security Council in December 2013 to assist the AU force.

Zeid noted the U.N. mandate but indicated that in such cases where the forces are not U.N. peacekeepers, "it is the country that is sending its troops that has that obligation" to follow up on allegations of misconduct.

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