Two French special forces soldiers accused of sexually abusing children in Burkina Faso returned home Thursday and were taken into custody, said a legal source.
The two French soldiers accused of sexually assaulting two girls aged three and five at a hotel swimming pool, were repatriated after being questioned by French and Burkinabe military police in the capital Ouagadougou. French Defense ministry spokesman Pierre Bayle confirmed they had been immediately suspended. "Even though they benefit from the presumption of innocence, the information we have makes the accusations against them seem highly probable," said defense ministry spokesman Pierre Bayle, emphasizing that both men were "immediately suspended".
France has reacted swiftly to the accusations in stark contrast to another alleged child sex abuse scandal involving French troops in Central African Republic that only came to light after it was leaked to the British press. Sources close to the Burkina Faso investigation say the two soldiers -- aged 36 and 38 -- met the mother of the youngest girl at the swimming pool on Sunday and were invited to her home for a drink.
One of the two men left behind his GoPro portable camera, on which the mother found images from the swimming pool in which the soldiers were allegedly touching the girls, the source said. The mother took the "fairly long" film to the French embassy, and it was later seen by the father of the other child. "There was a soldier who filmed the scene with a camera while the second touched (the girl)," a senior police officer in Burkina Faso told AFP. The soldiers arrived in Paris early Thursday, where they were questioned by police.
Paris prosecutors opened their investigation on Tuesday, while the defense ministry said the military was also looking into the allegations. Two French investigators have also arrived in Ouagadougou to carry out joint investigations with the Burkina police. "It is zero tolerance, without any exceptions," said Bayle. "Sexual crimes are contrary to the values of France and its armed forces. They threaten the image of our soldiers whose honor comes from being engaged in the service of peace and protection of civilians," he added.
There are about 220 French soldiers stationed in Burkina Faso as part of Operation Barkhane, a counter-terrorism mission launched in August 2014 and covering five regional countries spanning from Mali to Chad. Meanwhile, 14 French soldiers serving as UN peacekeepers in the Central African Republic are facing possible charges of sexual abuse against children after allegations were leaked to The Guardian newspaper in April. That has been followed by two more claims of child sex abuse against UN peacekeepers in the country, on these occasions from African countries.