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30 Oct 2007 12:33
Chadian authorities charged nine French nationals on Tuesday with abduction and fraud after they were detained trying to fly 103 African children to Europe to live with families, Chad’s government said.
A Chadian prosecutor said the French, who deny abducting the children and say they wanted to offer a better life to orphans from Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region, faced five to 20 years of hard labour if convicted in the landlocked African country.
Seven Spanish citizens, the crew of the charter plane used in the foiled operation, were charged as accessories to the crimes, Communications Minister Hourmadji Moussa Doumgor said.
Two Chadians were also charged as accessories.
The 16 Europeans were detained on Thursday as they tried to fly the children, aged three to 10 years and believed to be Sudanese and Chadian, out of Abeche in eastern Chad. A Belgian pilot has been detained separately but was not cited in Tuesday’s charges.
Doumgor said the group would probably be transferred this week from Abeche, near Chad’s eastern border with Sudan, to the capital, Ndjamena, in the west.
Journalists who were allowed to see and film, but not talk to, the detained French and Spanish held in Abeche’s law courts building said they looked stressed, tired and dishevelled.
A Reuters reporter said one of the French men made a gesture of hitting his face with his fist to indicate he had been beaten in custody.
Another lay on a thin mat on the floor, apparently in pain, while a colleague examined him.
The accused include the president and other members of French organisation Zoe’s Ark, which has said it intended to help the children, not abduct them, and that it acted legally.
The children, some believed to have come from families who fled to Chad from Sudan’s Darfur, were due to be housed with host families in Europe who paid several thousand euros each.
Some of the children have said their parents were still alive and they were lured from their villages on the Chad-Sudan border with offers of sweets and biscuits.
Zoe’s Ark had previously said it aimed to have children adopted but stopped referring to adoption, which is not authorised in Chad or Sudan, after France’s Foreign Ministry issued a warning about the group in August. The ministry said there was no guarantee the children were helpless orphans.
Gilbert Collard, a lawyer for Zoe’s Ark, accused Chad’s government of using the situation for political ends. He said the children were from a region on the border between Chad and Sudan and “we are unable to tell which country they are from”.
Chadian President Idriss Itno Déby has called the operation “pure and simple abduction” and demanded tough penalties for those responsible. He suggested the children could have ended up being sold to a paedophile ring or used to supply human organs.
“These people ... treat us like animals. So this is the image of the saviour Europe, which gives lessons to our countries. This is the image of Europe which helps Africans,” Chad’s official presidency website quoted Déby as saying.
The incident threatens to complicate relations between France and its former colony as a predominantly French European Union force prepares to deploy in eastern Chad, one of Africa’s most violent regions, to protect civilians there.
The French ambassador in Chad has said those involved in trying to fly out the children would face Chadian justice.
Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said late on Monday: “We hope the Spanish, who in the end were those that did the transport, are not responsible, remain uninvolved and can return home as quickly as possible.”—Reuters
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