August 17, 2006

U.N. Congo peacekeepers accused of sex abuse

By David Lewis

KINSHASA (Reuters) - The United Nations is investigating a
suspected child prostitution ring involving its peacekeepers
and government soldiers in the Democratic Republic of Congo,
the U.N. mission said on Thursday.

Among accusations being investigated is that pimps are
using the presence of U.N. peacekeepers to lure vulnerable
girls to go and work as prostitutes in areas of South Kivu
where they are deployed, the mission said in a statement.

The U.N.'s 17,000-strong mission MONUC, which is backing a
string of peace deals in the vast African nation following a
1998-2003 war and helping to run elections, has been hit by a
series of sex scandals and last year banned sex with locals.

"Although the majority of their patrons are Congolese
soldiers and civilians, some of the girls involved mentioned
that elements of MONUC contingents based in the region were
also among their clients," the statement said.

"MONUC takes these allegations very seriously and has
expressed extreme shock at the testimonies of the victims of
this illegal activity," it added.

The U.N. mission said it had launched a special
investigation to investigate the allegations and stressed that
there would be "zero tolerance" of sexual abuses by its troops.

Last year, the U.N. barred peacekeepers in Congo from
fraternizing with local people after investigations found some
soldiers and civilian staff were guilty of rape and pedophilia
including enticing hungry children with food or money in
exchange for sex.

But earlier this year, a U.N. diplomat responsible for
monitoring how the world body was tackling the problem said
sexual abuse charges against U.N. peacekeepers remained
unacceptably high due to a persistent "culture of
dismissiveness" in U.N. field missions.

"MONUC will work in close collaboration with its local
partners to fully investigate the matter, contribute to the
eradication of this prostitution ring and to the arrest of its
backers by the Congolese authorities," the U.N. said on

Despite the presence of the world's largest peacekeeping
mission, simmering violence continues in Congo's east where
local and foreign rebel groups still roam three years after the
war officially ended. Government army units are also chaotic.

The last Congo war sparked a humanitarian disaster that has
killed some 4 million people since 1998, more than any other
crisis since World War Two.

Civilians have frequently been targeted in fighting and
sexual violence is widespread and seldom punished. The U.N.
said it would ensure victims of the "trafficking" were

Backed by some 1,000 EU soldiers also sent to the country,
the U.N. recently helped organize Congo's July 30 elections,
the country's first free polls in over 40 years.