By Peter Murphy
Saturday, July 21, 2007
ABIDJAN - The United Nations suspended a Moroccan military contingent from its peacekeeping mission in Ivory Coast while it investigated allegations of widespread sexual abuse, the world body said on Saturday.
"It means they don't participate in our operations," said Hamadoun Toure, spokesman for the U.N. mission in Ivory Coast (ONUCI). "Those who are found guilty will be sent back home."
A statement from the United Nations said the measure was in addition to a decision to confine the entire battalion of 734 soldiers to barracks.
U.N. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said on Friday the investigation involved Moroccan soldiers having sex with a large number of underage girls in the West African country's northern rebel stronghold of Bouake.
Toure said the allegations had come to light after the mission ran a campaign against sexual exploitation in which it asked local people to inform it about abuses.
It then sent a team to carry out interviews and gather information after locals began to make complaints.
The Ivory Coast mission numbers just over 9,000 uniformed personnel from more than 40 countries. Moroccans make up the bulk of the force in Bouake with some Bangladeshi police, Pakistani engineers and Ghanaian medical personnel.
The peacekeepers, backed by troops from former colonial power France, are in the world's top cocoa grower to support a peace process that was revived in March by an agreement between President Laurent Gbagbo and rebel leader Guillaume Soro.
Over the last few years as peacekeeping has expanded, reports of abuse have mounted in various African nations, especially the Democratic Republic of the Congo, despite the "zero-tolerance" policy declared by the United Nations.
All U.N. Blue Helmets are banned from having sexual relations with locals and those serving in Ivory Coast attend training seminars on its code of conduct for peacekeepers.
Local residents in Bouake contacted by Reuters said they were unaware of the accusations against the Moroccan contingent or of their suspension.
The U.N. mission has generally been well-accepted in the rebel-held north but civilian and military staff working in the government south have occasionally been attacked or obstructed in their work by youths loyal to President Gbagbo.
The United Nations ignored sexual exploitation by peacekeepers and other field staff for decades, launching a crackdown only in recent years after reports of abuse in Congo.
A 2005 U.N. report said soldiers should be punished for any abuse, their pay docked and a fund set up to assist any women and girls they impregnated. But member nations have not agreed.