Paris scrambled on Monday to contain a row sparked by a French charity’s bid to airlift more than 100 children out of Chad, a key ally for Europe’s peacekeeping strategy in Sudan’s war-ravaged Darfur region.
President Idriss Déby Itno reacted furiously to the botched operation, even suggesting the charity, Zoe’s Ark, planned to sell the children to paedophiles or “kill them and remove their organs”.
Nine French nationals, including charity members and three journalists, their Belgian pilot and seven Spanish flight crew were facing possible child-trafficking charges over the affair, which has strained ties with France’s former colony.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy telephoned Déby, condemning the operation as “illegal and unacceptable” while Paris has repeatedly said its nationals would be held to account for their acts in a bid to limit the diplomatic fall-out.
The French government said on Monday that Sarkozy had obtained assurances the affair would not impact on the planned deployment of a European Union force to tackle the cross-border refugee crisis sparked in neighbouring Darfur.
Paris has 1 000 troops and several fighter jets stationed in Chad and has used its close ties with the Central African nation to win Ndjamena’s reluctant backing for the French-led deployment.
Chad’s support is pivotal to the success of the 4 000-man force, set to roll out from next month in Chad and the Central African Republic, to monitor camps for Darfur refugees and the internally displaced, who number 236 000 and 137 000 respectively in Chad alone.
“There will be no possible consequences and Déby has assured us of that,” Deputy Foreign Minister Rama Yade said. “The French state is absolutely not implicated in the Zoe’s Ark case.”
But Zoe’s Ark — which insists it mounted the operation in good faith, hoping to airlift a group of orphans whose lives were at risk in Darfur — says it was working in full knowledge of the Chadian and French authorities.
France says it warned Zoe’s Ark months ago that it risked breaking the law, but concedes that French army planes in Chad transported members of the charity on several occasions.
“It would appear that on the Chadian side, some suspect France of playing a double game, by letting the operation go ahead — but then rejecting all responsibility,” said a French aid worker close to the case.
“In any event the affair benefits Déby. He is profiting on the domestic front by pushing anti-French sentiment.”
Zoe’s Ark lawyer Gilbert Collard accused Ndjamena of exploiting the case for political gain.
“The European peacekeeping force is due to deploy … Chad is not in favour; it wants to keep control of certain zones and this provides it with a bargaining chip to intervene with the French authorities,” he charged.
France’s Socialist opposition leader Francois Hollande warned the government “not to allow the Chadian president to use this sinister affair, politically, diplomatically or worse”.
Déby came to power in a 1990 coup after France ended support for his predecessor Hissene Habre, and has enjoyed French diplomatic and military support against rebel threats ever since.
Attacked over its backing for Déby, Paris defends itself by saying there is no credible alternative among the opposition in a country torn by poverty, corruption and ethnic divisions.
“Déby’s initial reaction was extremely violent,” said Sharon Courtoux of the campaign group Survie, which lobbies against French support for undemocratic African regimes.
“Now he is saying to France: ‘I will calm down, but in exchange you need do all you can to help my position, and not back NGO calls for presidential elections or an inclusive national dialogue with rebel groups’.” — AFP