Sarkozy says evacuating children from Chad is illegal

France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned as illegal a bid by a French group to spirit more than 100 children out of Chad on the grounds that they were Darfur orphans in danger of being killed, his office said on Sunday.

Sarkozy called Chadian President Idriss Déby to discuss the case, his office said in a statement. Chad’s president has denounced the case as a “straightforward kidnapping” and promised punishment for anyone who tried to get the children out.

At least 16 people, nine of them French, have been detained for questioning by authorities in Chad.

The French president’s decision to become involved in the issue underscored the sensitivities revolving around 103 young children whose status and nationalities are currently unclear. They are currently being cared for in the eastern Chadian city of Abeche.

The children’s ages range from one to 12, with most of them three to eight years old, Human Rights Minister Rama Yade said.

“The president of the Republic has condemned this operation, which he described as illegal and unacceptable,” the president’s office said.

Nine French nationals, six reportedly members of an aid group and three of them journalists, were arrested on Thursday.
Seven crew members of a Spanish charter company were also arrested. The French TV station LCI reported on Sunday that a Belgian pilot was the latest to be detained.

Sarkozy said he inquired about the detained French nationals, particularly the journalists. Two of them were covering the operation and a third was reportedly present for personal reasons, according to the media watchdog group Reporters sans Frontières.

Earlier on Sunday, Yade said that France was fully cooperating with Chad’s government in its investigation of the aid group, L’Arche de Zoe, or Zoe’s Arc.

Zoe’s Arc said it had arranged French host families for the children to save them from possible death in Darfur, the Sudanese region in a nearly five-year conflict that has left more than 200 000 people dead and 2,5-million displaced—many to eastern Chad.

Officials were trying to determine the nationality and status of the children and whether they are orphans. Initial questioning suggests many of the children are Chadian.

Paris is “totally in agreement with President Déby’s saying that this operation should not have happened,” Yade said.

The junior minister, along with other French officials, have claimed that they tried to dissuade the group from its plan.

Yade said that the French had been aware of the group’s plans for months—and advised Chadian authorities in July—insisting that “we did everything possible” to stop it.

Zoe’s Arc had changed its name to disguise itself once in Chad, working under the name Children Rescue, Yade said. Children Rescue has been linked to Zoe’s Arc, but Yade said they were one and the same.

Asked if Zoe’s Arc was trafficking in children, as Chad’s president has suggested, Yade said, “We’ll see what the justice system says.”

France has formed a crisis committee to deal with the issue.

Yade said it was too early to say whether France would seek the return of its citizens but said the working journalists represent a special case.

The Darfur violence began when ethnic African rebels took up arms against the Arab-led government in 2003, accusing it of decades of discrimination and neglect. The Sudanese government is accused of retaliating by unleashing a militia of Arab nomads known as the janjaweed—a charge it denies. - Sapa-AP

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