/ 26 October 2007

French citizens detained in Darfur orphan kidnap saga

Nine French citizens have been arrested in Chad after being accused of attempting to take 103 orphaned children from Darfur out of the country to be adopted by French families, French media reported on Friday.

The nine suspects were taken into custody at the airport of Abeche, in eastern Chad, as they were preparing to leave the country with the children on a Boeing 757 aircraft.

Those arrested all belonged to Children Rescue, a French NGO created by the association L’Arche de Zoe, which is run by the firefighters in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil.

The secretary general of L’Arche de Zoe, Stephanie Lefebvre, told the daily Le Parisien that the aim of the mission was not to give the children up for adoption.

”We only wanted to save them from death in giving them a family setting,” she said.

Lefebvre also said that Chad authorities ”gave us all the necessary authorisation to set up our mission, but especially to take care of the children”.

Officially, the mission of Children Rescue was to create a health centre in Abeche to treat orphans from strife-torn Darfur, the daily Le Figaro said. But a Belgian pilot recruited by Children Rescue told the newspaper that the operation was ”organised in close cooperation with a French group wanting to adopt children from Darfur”.

Another aim, he said, was to attract media attention to the situation in Darfur, where more than two million people have been displaced and bout 200 000 killed in the long-running conflict between rebel militia and armed forces loyal to the Sudanese government.

”The heads of Children Rescue told me that they had the support of the Elysee Palace”, the office of President Nicolas Sarkozy, the pilot told Le Figaro.

The nine suspects have been jailed in Chad on charges of kidnapping and trafficking in children. A local governor has accused them of ”wanting to take little Muslims away from Islam”.

A local official with the United Nations High Commission told Le Figaro that the case would likely have grave repercussions for NGOs working in the region.

”Religion is a very sensitive question in this very conservative Islamic region, and this affair could be mentioned in the next statement by al-Qaeda,” he said. ”We can now fear that human rights workers could become targets of Islamic terrorists.” — Sapa-dpa