U.N. peacekeeping forces patrol in Central African Republic in December. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

Investigators have discovered a string of new cases in which U.N. peacekeepers allegedly sexually abused or exploited women and girls in the Central African Republic, widening a scandal that has sent shock waves through the United Nations and threatens to undermine one of its most crucial missions.

On Thursday, the United Nations reported seven new alleged victims as it responded to a Human Rights Watch report about the scandal that was released the same day. The victims were as young as 14, according to the report, which said several were raped. As in several previous cases, the abuses reportedly occurred in one of the country’s poorest and most vulnerable communities: a camp for families displaced by the country’s civil war, now entering its fourth year.

The top U.N. official in the Central African Republic, Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, called the alleged ­abuses “a double crime that affects the vulnerable women and children you were sent here to protect.”

Onanga-Anyanga announced that he would dismiss a contingent of 120 troops from Congo Republic, also known as Congo-Brazzaville, whose members were allegedly responsible for some of the most recent abuses. The troops will be confined to their barracks until they depart the country.

Since the U.N. mission in the Central African Republic was launched in 2014, it has been plagued by dozens of reports of sexual violence. There have been allegations of more than 40 cases­ of sexual abuse perpetrated by U.N. employees in the country in the past 13 months alone, according to U.N. data.

In an interview, Onanga-Anyanga said more cases­ were likely to be uncovered as U.N. investigators continue their work.

“I’m afraid we might just be seeing the tip of the iceberg,” he said.

The women and girls interviewed by Human Rights Watch said the peacekeepers responsible were from Congo Republic and Congo, the separate country formerly known as Zaire. Several victims said that the level of desperation in the displacement camps had led them to exchange sex for food or money. Others said they were raped at gunpoint. The alleged abuses­ occurred in the town of Bambari, in the center of the country, from this past October to December.

“In a country where armed groups routinely prey on civilians, peacekeepers should be protectors, not predators,” said Hillary Margolis, a women’s rights researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“The men were dressed in their military uniforms and had their guns,” one 14-year-old victim told Human Rights Watch. “I walked by and suddenly one of them grabbed me by my arms and the other one ripped off my clothes. They pulled me into the tall grass, and one held my arms while the other one pinned down my legs and raped me.”

At least some of the troops accused of the recent abuses­ had received U.N.-mandated training on sexual-abuse-related issues before their deployment — part of the organization’s attempt to curb the problem.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently called such abuses­ “a cancer in our system.”

In January, The Washington Post reported that four peacekeepers had allegedly paid girls as young as 13 as little as 50 cents in exchange for sex in a different camp for the internally displaced in Central African Republic. Last week, the United Nations announced that European troops had raped two girls and paid two others for sex — all four of them ages 14 to 16.

The series of abuses­ allegedly carried out by international troops began in 2013 and early 2014, when as many as 14 troops from France, Chad and Equatorial Guinea allegedly raped and sodomized six boys ages 9 to 15.

Now, U.N. officials face the challenge of mediating a vicious civil war while also policing their own ranks. The mission includes about 11,000 peacekeepers and costs about $600 million per year.

“We are conducting patrols on our own people, which has never been done before,” said a senior U.N. official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal security measures.

One of the problems, the official said, is that the U.N. mission had been accepting troops from the African Union who either were not aware of or were not concerned about U.N. values.

“You can’t just take African Union troops, put a blue helmet on them and assume their mind-set will change overnight,” he said, referring to the color of U.N. peacekeepers’ helmets.

Last year, a U.N. report by a panel that included former Canadian Supreme Court justice Marie Deschamps said that U.N. staff in Bangui, the Central African Republic’s capital, had “turned a blind eye to the criminal actions of individual troops.”

The previous U.N. special representative there, retired Gen. Babacar Gaye of Senegal, was fired in August over his team’s handling of the abuse allegations.

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