/ 5 November 2007

Sarkozy’s trip to Chad comes under scrutiny

The French opposition on Monday dismissed President Nicolas Sarkozy’s trip to Chad to bring seven Europeans home as a ”Zorro act” as questions mounted over a charity accused of trying to abduct 103 children.

Three French journalists and four Spanish air hostesses came back on Sarkozy’s presidential jet after he carried out a surprise visit to N’Djamena in a bid to calm Chadian anger.

The seven were among 17 Europeans arrested on child abduction charges after the French charity Zoe’s Ark tried to fly 103 children out of Chad to France on October 25. The charity had said the operation was to rescue orphans from Sudan’s Darfur region.

Socialist deputy Jean-Louis Bianco said Sarkozy ”thinks he is Zorro” and called for a parliamentary task force to determine how the charity was allowed to stage such an operation.

”here were serious blunders,” Bianco told the popular Le Parisien newspaper, adding that charity representatives had met three times with foreign ministry officials and openly discussed their plan to airlift the children.

Following talks with Chadian President Idriss Déby Itno, Sarkozy said he hoped the six remaining French detainees — all volunteers for the charity — would face trial in France. He acknowledged that Zoe’s Ark had acted ”so very badly”.

But Chadian Justice Minister Albert Pahimi Padacke said in N’Djamena that France had not presented an extradition request. He added that justice officials were ”continuing to prepare for a trial in Chad”.

The six remaining French nationals face charges of attempted kidnapping, while three other Spanish flight crew members are accused of complicity.

A 75-year-old Belgian pilot who flew the children from the Sudanese border to the eastern Chadian city of Abeche has also been charged with complicity.

Sarkozy stressed the affair would not affect relations between the two countries or derail plans to deploy a European force to protect refugees in Chad and in the neighbouring Central African Republic.

Le Figaro newspaper said Sarkozy had scored a diplomatic success with the trip to N’Djamena and a separate mission by Cecilia Sarkozy in July to win the release of Bulgarian medics held in Libya. The couple have since divorced.

The trip also signalled a shift in the relationship between France and its former African colonies from its paternalistic past, according to Le Figaro.

”There was a time.. when we were rarely concerned with respect for human rights, the sovereignty of sub-Saharan countries and the mood swings of heads of states whose grip on power they owed to Paris,” said the newspaper.

The release of the seven Europeans came after Déby last week said he hoped the journalists and air hostesses would be freed soon, adopting a more conciliatory tone after his initial outrage over the charity’s operation.

The Chadian president had accused Zoe’s Ark of trying to ”sell” the children to ”paedophile NGOs” and attempting to ”kill them for their organs” in remarks that brought considerable tension to relations with France.

The affair threatened to sour relations with Chad, a former colony that now hosts a large French military base in a volatile area of Central Africa.

The charity maintains it wanted to save orphans from the war in Sudan’s Darfur region, across the border from Chad.

But UN humanitarian agencies and the Red Cross have cast doubt on the claims, saying most of the children were actually Chadian and may not have been orphans at all. – AFP