The French peacekeeping force in Cote d'Ivoire has opened an inquiry into allegations that four of its soldiers sexually abused a young girl in the rebel-held north of the divided country.
The French army said in a statement on Thursday that it had received a complaint about an incident earlier this month in the village of Madinani, near the town of northwestern town of Odienne.
The statement did not mention the age of the alleged victim, nor did it give details of the alleged assault.
"We have launched an investigation to shed light on this matter, but we are proceeding with caution because so far, nothing has allowed us to confirm these allegations" Colonel Henri Aussavy, the spokesman for the French force in Cote d'Ivoire, told IRIN on Friday.
The Ivorian press reported that the allegations of sexual abuse had come from the rebel forces that control the northern half of this West African country.
Cote d'Ivoire has been split in two since a failed coup attempt against President Laurent Gbagbo in September 2002 plunged the country into civil war.
Around 4,000 troops from France, the former colonial power, are working alongside 6,000 UN peacekeepers to try to maintain a two-year-old ceasefire.
This is the first allegation of sexual abuse to be made against the French force, known as Licorne (Unicorn), since it was deployed in Cote d'Ivoire soon after the civil war started.
But Licorne's image was dented in September last year when twelve of its soldiers were arrested for stealing about 65 million CFA (US $124,000) from a bank they were supposed to be guarding in the rebel-held city of Man.
Anti-French sentiment has been running high in the government-held south for several months.
Last November, French forces disabled most of Cote d'Ivoire's tiny air force after nine French peacekeepers were killed in a government bombing raid on the rebel capital Bouake.
Anti-French riots subsequently erupted in the main city Abidjan. The disturbances resulted in 9,000 expatriates, most of them French, fleeing the country.
The latest controversy surrounding the international peacekeepers in Cote d'Ivoire surfaced two weeks before their mandate is set to expire on 4 June.
After twice extending their mandate for a month to give South African President Thabo Mbeki's peace drive time to bear fruit, the UN Security Council will meet again in a fortnight to decide its next move.
Last year UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for another 1,200 troops to be sent to the West African nation, but on Thursday his special representative to Cote d'Ivoire, Pierre Schori, said bigger reinforcements were needed.
"We have asked ... for reinforcements of just over 2,000 additional troops. This is being discussed in New York," Schori told a press conference on Thursday. "We need them to fulfil our duties on the arms embargo, on security in general, a security plan for the elections and disarmament and reintegration."
There have been several breakthroughs in Cote d'Ivoire's shaky peace process in the last few months.
Gbagbo, the rebels and the main parliamentary opposition parties agreed to a new South African-mediated peace deal in Pretoria on 6 April.
Gbagbo subsequently announced that he would allow his main rival, Alassane Ouattara, to stand in presidential elections planned for 30 October. Ouattara's exclusion from the 2000 elections is often cited as one of the reason's behind the rebel insurgency.
And last weekend the rebels agreed to start handing their weapons over to UN peacekeepers on 27 June, a move designed to pave the way for national reunification ahead of the polls.
However deep-rooted mistrust and suspicion has led to previous disarmament deadlines coming and going without any arms being relinquished.
The rebels earlier ignored a 14 May starting date for disarmament mooted in the Pretoria peace accord and just days after the latest signing, senior rebels cast doubt on whether June was a done deal.
In an interview with the French daily, Liberation, this week, rebel leader Guillaume Soro said that if problems with the disarmament of pro-government militias were not resolved, then his fighters would simply be confined to barracks with their weapons until the October election.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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