French recruits 'sexually abused'

FOUR NCOs in the French marines have been arrested after claims that they used violence and sexual abuse during commando training.

Two recruits from the 21st Marine Infantry Regiment based in the Mediterranean port of Frejus, where Francois Leotard, the conservative Defence Minister, is mayor, have committed suicide this year. The Defence Ministry said last week that 'reprehensible acts' had occurred during the eight-week training period for recruits, all professional soldiers.

Before leaving Frejus with just over half of the regiment's 1,500 men last month to join the United Nations force in Bosnia, Lieutenant-Colonel Philippe Tracqui, its commanding officer, and 18 marines lodged complaints against a sergeant and three corporals at the local gendarmerie. The NCOs, who have not been named, were placed in detention for 40 days pending investigations.

The allegations came to a head after Pascal Ciman, a marine from Metz, shot himself dead on a Frejus beach on 2 July. Another soldier attempted suicide, while a third, Didier Boucher, a 19-year-old who did not serve with the NCOs now under arrest, killed himself on 31 March.

While official statements talked of brutality during what the military public-relations service called 'a virile training somewhat like rugby', parents of recruits have alleged that their sons suffered sexual abuse ranging from burning their pubic hair with cigarette lighters to sodomy. They said the NCOs hurled abuse at the young men, including racist insults. A marine of Tunisian origin deserted and fled to his home country, parents told the French press.

The most detailed information about alleged violence in the regiment has come from the parents of Didier Boucher, the recruit who killed himself in March. His father, Lucien, a retired and professional soldier himself, said the young man hurt an ankle one week into his training. Despite complaining of pain, medical officers waited for three days before giving him an X-ray examination.

Mr Boucher, who said the young men were 'left to warrant officers, sergeants and corporals who spread terror without any control by officers', said his son was accused of malingering by NCOs who are alleged to have beaten him with sticks and kicked his ankle.

An aunt in Marseilles noticed when he visited her that Didier had a swollen hand. He blamed it on beatings. He also alleged that an NCO had put a smoke grenade on another recruit's stomach and had removed the pin. The resulting burns put the recruit in hospital for skin grafts; the NCO's punishment was a reprimand, he said.

In March, after he asked for a discharge, Boucher shot himself with a pistol. When the family complained to the Defence Ministry, a lieutenant replied in writing that 'realising he could achieve nothing in the army, Didier took refuge in alcohol, drugs and lies'.