Ivory Coast: Moroccan soldiers serving in West Africa have been accused of sexually abusing girls as young as 13
Allegations that U.N. soldiers sexually exploited underage girls in Ivory Coast may have shocked the world body but locals say sex with foreign troops is a common survival tactic in a war-ravaged economy.
A contingent of 734 Moroccan soldiers serving in the north of the West African state has been suspended and confined to its barracks pending an investigation into abuse over a three-year period involving large numbers of girls as young as 13.
The accusations are the latest in a string of such cases to hit U.N. missions in Africa, where reports of abuse have mounted in recent years as peacekeeping has expanded, despite a "zero tolerance" policy declared by the world body.
In northern Ivory Coast's town of Bouake, a rebel stronghold where the Moroccans are stationed, locals say sexual relations between peacekeepers and local girls are commonplace.
"It is all related to poverty. These are very poor young village girls," said Youssouf Oomar, head of U.N. children's agency UNICEF in Ivory Coast. "When they are in poverty they get poorer and get caught up in what could be called survival sex."
In a rebel zone with no justice system where rights abuses including rape are regularly denounced in U.N. reports, local people are unsurprised by talk of sex in exchange for money.
"Often it's the girls who go to them ... they think they have all the money in the world," said Abiba Coulibaly, 19, who is finishing secondary school but already works as a trader. She said she had often seen young girls approach soldiers.
A manager at a popular night spot said women of 20 years or older would usually pursue them into her bar. She said the troops stopped coming more than a month ago.
"It's not a big deal. This is between the Moroccans and the girls. They do that to earn a few coins," said Souleymane Bamba, who sells onions at Bouake's market, a few kilometres (miles) from the main U.N. base on the southern edge of town.
Ivorians have in the past been quick to stage protests against U.N. and French peacekeepers, especially in the south where they are viewed as sympathising with the rebels, but many in Bouake were as quick to blame local girls as the soldiers.
Some however were angered by the age of the youngest girls involved.
"If it's on minors, it's a true scandal. No-one can condone sex with minors. For the adults, they are adults," said Doctor Pol Ahipo, head of the health centre in Brobo, 25 km (16 miles) east of Bouake and opposite one of Moroccan bases.
All U.N. blue helmets are banned from having sex with locals but the allegations will inspire little confidence the world body is succeeding in stamping out abuse after similar scandals hit its missions in Liberia and Democratic Republic of Congo.
In Congo there were accusations that girls who agreed to be the girlfriend of one soldier then became victims of gang rape. The allegations made public in Ivory Coast so far have not gone into such detail.
UN: any Moroccan peacekeepers who committed sex abuse in Ivory Coast will be repatriated