Two French soldiers have been suspended over allegations they sexually abused minors in Burkina Faso, the French defense ministry told AFP on Tuesday. French troops are currently stationed in the landlocked West African nation as part of Operation Barkhane — an anti-terrorism military campaign across Africa's Sahel region.
The abuse is believed to have occurred on Monday, AFP has reported. On Tuesday, French defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian announced that he had suspended the soldiers and alerted France's legal authorities. The army, he added, would be "merciless" if the two suspects were found guilty.
The Paris prosecutor told French daily Le Monde that an investigation had been opened on Tuesday evening over the "suspected sexual assault of minors by French soldiers" stationed in Burkina Faso. The investigation has been handed over to the French military police, which is responsible for cases involving soldiers deployed on overseas operations. As part of the investigation, French military police officers will be dispatched to Burkina Faso from neighboring Niger on Wednesday.
Niger and Burkina Faso are both involved in Operation Barkhane — a French military campaign spanning five countries in the Sahel region of North Africa. Launched in August 2014, Barkhane is intended to halt the threat of Islamist militant groups operating in the region. Nearly 3,000 French troops are stationed in the region today, including 220 in Burkina Faso.
According to a senior official in Burkina Faso's police force, one of the victims of the abuse is a five-year-old girl whose parents were "friends" of the alleged perpetrators. The same source told AFP that one of the soldiers had filmed his colleague while he "touched" the girl, before forgetting to take the camera along when he left the girl's home. The girl's father found the camera and contacted the French embassy in the capital, Ouagadougou, which in turn alerted the legal authorities, who have launched their own investigation.
When contacted by VICE News on Wednesday, the authorities in Burkina Faso declined to comment on the investigation.
France's immediate suspension of the soldiers is in stark contrast to the treatment of another military child sex abuse scandal that surfaced in the spring. According to a confidential UN internal report leaked to the Guardian newspaper in April, 14 French troops deployed as part of a peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic (CAR) were being investigated over allegations of raping children as young as nine.
At the time, the French army had been heavily criticized for being slow to react to the abuse claims and for keeping the scandal under wraps. The report, which was leaked by Swedish UN aid worker Anders Kompass and was titled "Sexual Abuse on Children by International Armed Forces," suggested that French troops stationed in the CAR capital Bangui as part of Operation Sangaris had raped and sexually abused starving and displaced children in exchange for food.
France launched Operation Sangaris in December 2013 after fighting broke out between the Seleka rebels, who are primarily Muslim, and the Christian and animist anti-balaka militias. France started withdrawing its troops from the CAR in June, and there are currently 900 French soldiers stationed in the country — down from 2,000 at the start of the mission.
The 14 soldiers implicated in the CAR child sex abuse scandal were not immediately suspended, on the basis of their presumed innocence. The French army's chief of staff, General Jean-Pierre Bosser, had said at the time that by implying the soldiers' guilt before a trial, all French troops risked being "perceived as child rapists."
Burkina Faso is currently being steered by a transitional government toward the next presidential elections, scheduled for October 11. In October 2014, VICE News was on the ground in Burkina Faso to document the popular uprising that ended the 27-year rule of President Blaise Compaoré.
Follow Pierre Longeray on Twitter @PLongeray
Image of French troops stationed as part of Operation Barkhane via Etat-major des armées / armée de Terre