S Lanka peacekeepers face jail if abuse proven

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COLOMBO, Nov 3 (Reuters) More than 100 Sri Lankan UN peacekeepers accused of sexual exploitation and abuse in Haiti could face hard labour if found guilty, the military said today, but said an inquiry was needed first.

UN spokeswoman Michele Montas said yesterday 108 of Sri Lanka's 950 soldiers in Haiti were being sent home on disciplinary grounds over allegations of ''transactional sex''. She said there were also allegations involving underage girls.

''Definitely, if they are proved guilty the maximum punishment will be given according to the Sri Lankan law and military law,'' said military spokesman Brigadier Udaya Nanayakkara.

''If they are proved guilty, then that's a black mark,'' he added without elaborating further.

Under Sri Lankan law, hard labour is the maximum punishment for such offences, but it was not immediately clear what the maximum sentence was.

Sri Lanka's government has been criticised for sheltering troops fighting a civil war against Tamil Tiger rebels at home against accusations of human rights abuses and extrajudicial killings.

Nordic truce monitors have accused state security forces of massacring 17 aid workers last year during a battle in the east against the rebels. No troops were questioned in connection with the killings, which a senior government official has blamed on the ''irresponsibility'' of their employer, Action Contre la Faim, a French aid group said.

The UN's Montas said it was now up to Sri Lanka to deal with the abuse allegations of the peacekeepers.

''They are back under national jurisdiction. So far, Sri Lanka has said ... that they are going to be prosecuted in Sri Lanka,'' she said.

Over the last few years, as peacekeeping missions have expanded, reports of abuse have spread in various African nations, especially the Democratic Republic of Congo, despite the UN's declared ''zero-tolerance'' policy.

The United Nations largely ignored sexual exploitation by peacekeepers and other field staff for decades, launching a public crackdown only in recent years after reports of abuse surfaced in the Congo.

A 2005 UN report said soldiers should be punished for any sexual abuse, their pay docked and a fund set up to assist any women and girls they impregnated. But member nations have not agreed.

REUTERS PD PM1220

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