UN probes alleged sex crimes by Moroccan peacekeepers in Ivory Coast

A United Nations delegation was en route to Ivory Coast Tuesday to probe allegations that some of the UN's Moroccan peacekeepers have sexually exploited girls as young as 13 years old, an official said.

A United Nations delegation was en route to Ivory Coast Tuesday to probe allegations that Moroccan peacekeepers have sexually exploited girls under the age of 18, an organization official said.

A 730-member battalion of Moroccan troops has been confined to barracks inthe northern Ivory Coast city of Bouake for more than a week after a preliminary UN investigation "revealed serious allegations of widespread sexual exploitation and abuse," according to a UN statement last week.

Only one of the battalion's units, however, is allegedly involved, a UN spokesperson has said.

A joint investigation involving UN and Moroccan officials will look into the allegations and try to determine who is responsible, UN assistant secretary general for the department of field support, Jane Holl Lute, told CBC News Tuesday.

About 9,000 UN troops have been deployed in Ivory Coast since 2003. The troops patrol a buffer zone between the rebel-controlled north and loyalist south to prevent a civil war in the West African country. The mission is set to expire in January 2008.

"If allegations are found to be based on truth …those culpable won't get away with it," Lute said in an interview from New York. "We won't be complacent when serious allegations are raised."

If any peacekeepers are found to have committed sex crimes in Ivory Coast, they will be sent home and punished under the laws of their home country, UN officials have said.

While the allegations are a first for the Ivory Coast mission, UN peacekeepers have faced accusations of sexual exploitation in other countries, including Congo, Liberia and Haiti.

In the past three years, the international organization has investigated about 319 allegations of sexual exploitation involving UN staff. As a result, 18 civilians have been dismissed, and 17 police and 144 military staff have been repatriated on disciplinary grounds.

Asked why such troubles persist, Lute says it's a source of continuing frustration for host countries and peacekeepers alike.

"The bad behaviour of one affects us all. Why can't they seem to understand what the standard is and hold themselves to that standard?" she questioned.

In December 2006, the UN held a conference on how to eliminate sexual exploitation and abuse by its workers.

Then secretary general Kofi Annan said at the timethat while the UN has made progress in handling sex crimes allegations more professionally, the message of zero tolerance is still not getting through to all workers.