US army mired in race scandal

The US Army's inquiry into sexual harassment has been thrown into turmoil and racial controversy by claims from white female recruits that they were pressured into making rape charges against their training officers - all of them black.

It has been four months since what appeared one of the gravest scandals in army history erupted, with allegations of systematic sexual harassment at the Aberdeen training base in Maryland. From army installations in the US and around the world, thousands of women soldiers used a special hot line set up by the Pentagon to complain of molestation and persecution by male colleagues.

Now, however, it seems a good measure of the original case may be fiction. Five women from Aberdeen, where eight supervisors have been charged with sex crimes, say that despite intense pressure from investigators, they would not make accusations of rape. Whatever took place, therefore, was consensual - "fraternisation" in army parlance.

But such relations between a soldier and a superior are forbidden, and, as Kathryn Leming, one of the women, told a press conference, "They told me that under army rules it was considered rape. They pushed me and pushed me and tried to make me say rape, but I wouldn't do it because it wasn't the truth."

As a result, the army now has two controversies on its hands: one of sexual harassment and the other race.

The press conference was organised by the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People, and Kweise Mfume, the chairman, is demanding an independent investigation of how the army conducted the inquiry.

The Pentagon dismisses any suggestion of racial motivation, while its investigators deny they ever dangled incentives before the women to secure their co-operation. But in terms of muddying the investigation and embarrassing the army hierarchy, the damage has been done.

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