Chad protesters: ‘No to child-trafficking’

Chadians chanting ”No to the slave trade, no to child-trafficking” protested on Wednesday against a French group accused of trying to illegally fly children from the Central African country to Europe.

Several hundred angry locals gathered outside the governor’s office in the eastern town of Abeche, where nine French nationals and seven Spaniards were arrested last week as they tried to fly 103 children out of the impoverished state.

”We can’t accept this act of barbarity, of vandalism. Whether in the eighth century or the 20th century there shouldn’t be these kinds of acts in Africa,” shouted one protester.

The detained French are members of a group called Zoe’s Ark, which said it wanted to place orphans aged three to 10 years from Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region with European families.

The scandal has triggered outrage among Chadians, with many on the barren border with Sudan questioning the motives of scores of foreign humanitarian groups that work with refugees who have fled years of conflict in Darfur.

Families of children missing in eastern Chad, itself riven by conflict and sheltering about 230 000 Sudanese refugees from Darfur, arrived at the orphanage where the 103 children are being held in the hope of finding lost relatives.

”I can assure you that the Chadian government … is aware of your complaints and is putting in place all the necessary judicial measures to investigate this issue,” Abeche Governor Tourka Ramadan Karo told the crowd.

In a bid to calm anger against former colonial power France, he emphasised the group responsible was acting independently and said the French government was helping with investigations.

No impact on EU force

The scandal is an embarrassment for France, which is a longstanding ally of Chadian President Idriss Itno Déby.

France has troops stationed in Chad and will provide roughly half of a European Union peacekeeping force of up to 3 000 soldiers to be deployed in the east in the coming weeks to protect Sudanese and Chadian refugees there.

”This failed attempt at kidnapping children will have no impact on the deployment of European forces in eastern Chad,” Communications Minister Hourmadji Moussa Doumgor said, dismissing speculation in French political and media circles that Chad might be seeking an excuse to block the EU mission.

Chadian authorities have charged the French nationals, who include two journalists, with abduction and fraud, meaning they could face five to 20 years hard labour if convicted.

Seven Spanish crew members of the plane chartered for the operation were charged as accessories, along with two Chadians, local officials from the border town of Tine, north of Abeche.

No decision had yet been made on where they would be tried.

”Will the French ask for them to be judged somewhere [other than Ndjamena]? We’re not yet at that stage,” Mahamat Hissene, Déby’s presidential chief of staff, told French radio.

The Red Cross, United Nations children’s agency and UN refugee agency (UNHCR) have been interviewing the children to try to ascertain their identities. Officials have said it appears many of them were from Chad and were not orphans.

”Once we have the information from the children it will have to be verified,” said Serge Male, the head of UNHCR in Chad.

”We will have to go to the villages where they claim they come from, see their parents, or who they claim are their parents, and do this work. It will take time,” he told Reuters. — Reuters

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Stephanie Hancock
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