Six French aid workers sentenced to hard labour in Chad for trying to kidnap 103 children flew out of the African nation on Friday bound for France where they are due to serve their sentences in jail.
France invoked a 1976 judicial cooperation treaty with its former colony to obtain the quick transfer home of the six, who were sentenced by a Chadian criminal court on Wednesday to eight years’ hard labour for abduction.
The four men and two women from French humanitarian group Zoe’s Ark, who looked tired after two months in jail in the landlocked country, flew out of Ndjamena airport aboard a Boeing airliner of the Chadian carrier Toumai Air Tchad.
They were escorted by French officials.
Their departure from Chad followed a highly publicised legal case and diplomatic imbroglio which had embarrassed France, a key backer of Chadian President Idriss Déby Itno. French troops and planes stationed in Chad have given logistical and intelligence support to Déby’s army fighting rebels in the east.
France is also the main contributor of troops to a European Union peace force preparing to deploy in eastern Chad to protect thousands of Sudanese refugees and displaced Chadian civilians.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is on holiday in Egypt and had personally lobbied for the six to be returned to France, spoke by phone on Thursday with Déby, French officials said.
The aid workers were arrested in October as they tried to fly the children, aged one to 10, from eastern Chad to Europe for fostering with families there.
The workers said they had been on a humanitarian mission to rescue orphans from Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region, across Chad’s eastern border.
But most of the 103 children were found to have come from families in Chadian border villages who were persuaded to give up the infants with promises of education at local centres.
The Zoe’s Ark case sparked anti-French protests in Ndjamena and in Abeche in the east.
Many Chadians were angry over what they saw as meddling by Sarkozy, who flew to Chad in early November to collect three French journalists and four Spanish flight attendants who were freed after being arrested along with the Zoe’s Ark six.
Under pressure from Paris and Madrid, Chad also freed three remaining Spanish aircrew and a Belgian pilot who had been detained in the case.
Being flown to France means the convicted aid workers will be spared hard labour, which no longer exists in France.
But they may face lawsuits lodged by families who had offered to look after the children in Europe. Diplomats say some of them paid several thousand euros per child. — Reuters