More than 70 Chadian children ‘flown to France’

Chad will investigate reports that at least 74 Chadian children were flown to France more than a month-and-a-half ago without their parents’ knowledge, a senior judicial official said on Thursday.

A network of local human rights groups wrote to the public prosecutor’s department with details about the 74 children said to have been flown from Chad to a military airport outside Paris on September 17, said Masngarel Kagah of the department.

France’s Foreign Ministry said it had no immediate information about the report.

Kagah said that it was not clear who flew the children out of Chad, adding it may not be Zoe’s Ark, the French aid group that was stopped from taking other children out of Chad last week.

Six French Zoe’s Ark workers have been charged in Chad with kidnapping for seeking to send 103 other children they claimed were orphans from war-wracked Darfur on a plane to France. They face up to 20 years at hard labour if convicted.

The French Foreign Ministry and others have cast doubt on the claims by Zoe’s Ark that the children were orphans from neighbouring Sudan’s Darfur, where more than 200 000 people have been killed since fighting erupted in early 2003.

While Zoe’s Ark says its intentions were purely humanitarian, United Nations and other aid agencies say taking children — even those in desperate circumstances — away from their families and culture may not be the best way to help them.

The affair also has focused attention on the inability of many African governments to safeguard children and ensure that those claiming to want to help are not sex or labour traffickers.

Kagah said that the Network of Human Rights Associations in Chad gathered the information about the 74 children after several parents went to inform the organisation their children were missing.

The children ”have effectively been kidnapped. They landed at this military airport to go to an unknown destination,” Kagah said.

Kagah, who received the letter dated on Tuesday and an accompanying document, said he will write to the public prosecutor, forwarding the documents and initiating an investigation.

The children are aged between one and six, according to the letter that Kagah read to The Associated Press. The accompanying document lists 74 names, he said. ”We do not know how many [other] children were transported in such conditions.”

In France, a spokesperson for Zoe’s Ark, Christophe Letien, said he knew nothing about the report and that his group was not involved.

”I can assure that this was not from Zoe’s Ark. That is absolutely certain. Just one aircraft was chartered and it is the plane that is still there at Abeche,” he said. ”As for other organisations that might have done this type of thing, I know absolutely nothing.”

Also on Thursday, dozens of young men protested outside a Ndjamena courthouse where the Zoe’s Ark cases were being heard, one group shouting ”Justice” and the other replying ”in Chad”.

It was the second day of protests sparked by French President Sarkozy saying earlier this week he wanted the remaining French people facing possible trial in Chad to be returned to France.

Later, the protesters marched to the French embassy to continue their demonstration there.

Sarkozy made a surprise visit to the former French colony on Sunday, in time for the release of three journalists and four Spanish flight attendants detained with the aid workers from Zoe’s Ark. In addition to the six Zoe’s Ark workers being held on kidnapping charges, three other Spanish crew and a Belgian pilot are being held in Ndjamena on accessory charges. — Sapa-AP

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