UNITED NATIONS - U.N. peacekeepers and international aid workers are involved in widespread sexual abuse of children in war and disaster zones, a leading children's charity alleged yesterday.

The charge prompted U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon to promise an investigation.

The report by Save the Children UK, based on field research in southern Sudan, the Ivory Coast and Haiti, describes sexual crimes committed by peacekeepers and international relief workers against children, some as young as 6.

It said some children were denied food unless they granted sexual favors, while others were forced to have sex or to take part in child pornography. Many more were subjected to improper touching or kissing.

"The report shows sexual abuse has been widely underreported because children are afraid to come forward," Jasmine Whitbread, chief executive of Save the Children UK, said in an interview.

"A tiny proportion of peacekeepers and aid workers are abusing the children they were sent to protect," she said. "It ranges from sex for food to coerced sex. It's despicable."

Calling the sexual exploitation of minors a "very serious issue," Ban repeated to reporters that he had a "zero tolerance" policy for such acts by U.N. personnel.

Earlier, U.N. spokeswoman Michele Montas welcomed the report. "It's fair, and I think it's essentially accurate," she said.

Montas noted the report stated the United Nations had already undertaken steps designed to tackle the problem, from establishing conduct and discipline units in all U.N. missions to strengthening training for all categories of U.N. personnel.

The study was based on research, confidential interviews and focus groups conducted last year. The charity emphasized that it did not produce comprehensive statistics about the scale of abuse but did gather enough information to indicate the problem was severe.

The report said that more than half the children interviewed knew of cases of sexual abuse and that in many instances children knew of 10 or more such incidents carried out by aid workers or peacekeepers.

The Save the Children UK researchers, who met with 129 girls and 121 boys between the ages of 10 and 17, and also with a number of adults, found that an "overwhelming" majority of the people interviewed would never report a case of abuse and had never heard of a case being reported.

The threat of retaliation and the stigma attached to sex abuse were powerful deterrents to coming forward, the report said.

Save the Children spokesman Dominic Nutt said U.N. peacekeepers were involved in many abuse cases because they were present throughout the world in large numbers. But he praised the United Nations for improving its reporting and investigative procedures regarding sex abuse.

"We're not singling out the U.N.," he said. "In some ways they do a good job. It's all peacekeepers and all aid workers, including Save the Children," that are involved in abuses.

The report says several Save the Children workers were fired for having sex with 17-year-old girls in violation of agency guidelines.

In its report, Save the Children UK makes three key recommendations: Establish a way for people to report abuse locally; create an international watchdog agency this year to deal with the problem, and set up a program to deal with the underlying causes of child abuse.

Tom Cargill, Africa program manager at the London think tank Chatham House, said the problem cannot be quickly solved.

"The governance of U.N. missions has always been a problem because soldiers from individual states are only beholden to those states," he said. "So it's difficult for the U.N. to pursue charges and difficult for the U.N. to investigate them."

Read the Save the Children UK report via http://go.philly.com/warzoneEndText