Paris - President Francois Hollande on Thursday vowed to "show no mercy" if French peacekeepers in the Central African Republic were found guilty of sexually assaulting hungry children in exchange for food.
According to a French judicial source, 14 soldiers dispatched to the chaos-ridden nation to restore order after a 2013 coup are implicated in a probe into the alleged sexual abuse of several children there the youngest just nine, who had begged for something to eat.
Also read: France probes alleged child sex abuse by its troops in CAR
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 a day after The Guardian newspaper broke the story.
'Not hiding the facts'
The French defence ministry meanwhile denied attempting to cover up the potentially devastating scandal following revelations it was made aware of the allegations in July last year when it received a leaked UN report on the subject.
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 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.
"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 it.
The ministry said it immediately launched a probe into the case when it received the news, sending investigators to the former French colony on August 1, but the damning allegations only emerged this week in The Guardian.
"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, and has since been suspended.
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, and that an unnamed staff member had been suspended for leaking the report.
If verified, this would not be the first sexual abuse scandal to hit peacekeeping forces -- examples abound, including in Haiti, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ivory Coast and Somalia.
Florent Geel, head of the Africa desk at the International Federation for Human Rights, said Kompass likely leaked the report because those accused are French.
"When it involves Chad, there is never any follow-up. But here it involves France, where there is an independent judicial system, it could move things on," he said.
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 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," he said.
"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."
The abuses detailed in the leaked report took place before the UN mission MINUSCA was deployed in the country and was investigated by the UN office of human rights in Bangui in the late spring of last year.