United Nations investigators have documented a pattern of sexual abuse and exploitation by peacekeeping troops in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Several civilian and military peacekeepers are facing criminal charges as a wider probe gets underway

An internal U.N. investigation has uncovered evidence that peacekeepers in the Democratic Republic of Congo routinely sexually abused women and girls as young as 13. After looking into 72 allegations against military and civilian peacekeepers, most of them in the northeastern Ituri province, the investigators filed 20 case reports.

Speaking to reporters Friday, lead investigator Barbara Dixon said her team concluded that sexual exploitation by blue-helmeted U.N. troops is a serious and ongoing problem.

"In our view, the problem is and continues to be widespread,? she said.  ?We focused on Ituri province, it seems there are allegations that cover all of the Congo, and as some of you have pointed out, it's not just limited to the Congo."

The U.N. report documents cases in which peacekeepers lured poverty-stricken teenagers into sex for small amounts of money and food. 

At least two civilians working in the Congo peacekeeping mission have been charged with pedophilia. One was sent home to France where he is in jail awaiting prosecution. Another has been fired and sent home, where charges are pending.  At least three other civilians and three soldiers are also facing charges in their home countries.

The Congo peacekeeping mission is one of the largest of its kind. U.N. special envoy to Congo, William Lacy Swing, said the operation will employ 16,000 people by next month, representing more than 100 nationalities.

Officials declined to name countries whose troops were involved in sexual exploitation, saying it might lead to a lack of cooperation by troop contributing nations. But Undersecretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Marie Guehenno said he is outraged and angered that people representing the mission known as MONUC had betrayed the confidence of the Congolese people.

"It demoralizes the mission,? he said. ?It destroys trust the Congolese have in MONUC and the effort of the United Nations. It is a big stain on us, and that's why we have to go at it with great determination.  We are in most difficult moment."

Mr. Guehenno and Ambassador Swing said a special investigative team has been dispatched from U.N. headquarters to the Congo to determine the extent of the sexual exploitation problem.  The team is being headed by an assistant to the secretary-general.

Both men defended rules already in place that govern sexual contact between peacekeepers and the civilian population they are sent to protect. In addition, however, special "Code of Conduct" units are being formed to ensure peacekeeping troops understand the severity of sex crimes, and the damage they do.

Code of Conduct units will be immediately sent to the Congo, as well as to other sensitive peacekeeping missions in Burundi, Haiti and Ivory Coast.