Sarkozy flies seven Europeans from Chad

French President Nicolas Sarkozy flew seven freed Europeans out of Chad on Sunday but 10 others remained in jail charged with child abduction and fraud.

The three French journalists and four Spanish flight attendants were among 16 French and Spanish nationals arrested 10 days ago as they tried to fly 103 African children to Europe.

Six members of French group Zoe’s Ark are charged with fraud and abduction. Three members of a Spanish air crew are charged as accessories, as is a Belgian pilot who was arrested later.

”France has confidence in the Chadian state and the Chadian justice system,” Sarkozy said, who flew to Chad’s capital N’Djamena to intervene on behalf of the Europeans.

He was at a joint news conference with President Idriss Déby, who said he would ask the judiciary to take into account that the Belgian pilot was 75-years-old and had heart problems.

Sarkozy said: ”Relations between Chad and France are good and … this rather lamentable escapade has nothing to do with the deployment of the European force in Chad”.

France, the former colonial power, has troops stationed in Chad and will provide about half of up to 3 000 European Union forces that will deploy in the violent eastern region in coming weeks to protect Sudanese and Chadian refugees.

Déby said there was ”never a question about refusing the arrival of the European forces”, and he thanked Sarkozy for his support in securing the EU troops.

Sarkozy said he would rather see French people tried in French courts and said there would be discussions between their judiciaries to find ”within weeks, an outcome which respects Chadian justice and gives full guarantees to all parties”.

Sarkozy’s jet was due to stop in Madrid later on Sunday to drop off the four Spanish women. A fifth, male, flight attendant remained in detention in Chad along with the pilot and co-pilot.

Those released boarded the plane looking tired but relieved.

”I was just doing my work — my work as a journalist,” French photojournalist Jean-Daniel Guillou told reporters.

”For the women it was more difficult, because there were prisoners all around us. But they weren’t aggressive at all. We were in relatively good conditions.” He said French soldiers based in Abeche had sent them military rations in prison.

Paris-based press freedom watchdog Reporters sans Frontières welcomed the journalists’ release, and called for charges against the group to be formally dropped as soon as possible.

The Europeans were arrested in the eastern Chadian town of Abeche, near the border with Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region, as they sought to fly out the children aged between one and 10 years.

Chad accused the group of trying to abduct the children, but Zoe’s Ark has said it intended to place orphans from Darfur with European families for foster care and that it had the right to do so under international law.

United Nations and Chadian officials say most of the infants had come from families with at least one parent living on the violent Chad-Sudan border, contradicting the ”war orphans” description of the children given by Zoe’s Ark.

”It is simply unacceptable to see children taken out of their home countries without complying with national and international laws,” Ann Veneman, head of UN Children’s Fund Unicef, said on Sunday during a visit to Sudan.

”Our position is that this is not consistent with international norms or practices or laws,” she said.

But about 200 supporters of the detainees marched silently through central Paris holding up banners reading ”They only thought about the children” and ”Let’s not let them down”. – Reuters

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Stephanie Hancock
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