.N’DJAMENA, Chad (AP) – Chad charged six French citizens with kidnapping after they tried to fly out 103 African children from the remote border region with Sudan, bandaging them up to look injured and claiming they were Darfur orphans in need of rescue.
The case threatens to impede aid efforts for hundreds of thousands of Darfur refugees by intensifying already deep local suspicions about the motives of humanitarian workers.
Seventeen Europeans have been detained since Thursday, when authorities blocked an attempt by a French group calling itself L’Arche de Zoe – Zoe’s Ark – to fly the African children to Europe, where they were to be placed with host families.
The French Foreign Ministry and others have cast doubt on the claims by the little-known group that the children are Darfur orphans.
“According to initial information … there seem to be many Chadian children and even many who are not orphans,” French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani told reporters in Paris on Tuesday.
If convicted, the French suspects, who were charged late Monday, face up to 20 years hard labor in a Chadian prison, said Chad’s interior minister, Ahmat Bachir.
Three French journalists traveling with the group and seven Spanish citizens who worked for the Barcelona-based charter airline hired to fly the children out also were detained, as was a pilot from Belgium. The journalists and the Spaniards were charged with complicity, Justice Minister Pahimi Padacket Albert said.
Two of the journalists were covering the operation and a third was present for personal reasons, according to the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
Far more is at stake than the suspects’ fates.
More than 300,000 Darfur refugees are living in camps along the Sudanese border after fleeing four years of conflict that has left more than 200,000 people dead and driven 2.5 million from their homes. The remote region along the edge of the Sahara Desert is among the least hospitable anywhere.
Aid groups operate in Chad with permission from the government of President Idriss Deby, who has expressed outrage at the group’s activities and may crack down on humanitarian efforts as a result.
A statement posted on the government’s Web site said Deby was “shocked by the acts of Zoe’s Ark, which is trafficking children under cover of humanitarian assistance.”
The allegations are a major embarrassment for France, which was Chad’s colonial master until 1960 and has deep ties to the volatile region. President Nicolas Sarkozy said Tuesday he told Deby by telephone that his government “condemns these activities.”
The Zoe’s Arc workers “were wrong to do what they did,” Sarkozy said during a visit to the French island of Corsica. “Why were these children picked up and to what end? That’s what we must know now.”
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon condemned the group’s activities and expressed hope they wouldn’t discredit other non-governmental organizations doing “remarkable work” in Chad and Darfur, “and which now are suffering suspicion.”
The group, which used the name Children Rescue while working in Chad, was flown around on several occasions by French army planes, and French Defense Minister Herve Morin defended the army’s role.
“Nothing led the French army to suspect that this NGO, with all the authorizations of the sovereign and independent state of Chad, that there was something else behind all that,” Morin said on France-2 television Tuesday.
Zoe’s Ark was founded in 2005 by a volunteer firefighter, Eric Breteau, who said it was named after a girl orphaned by the December 2004 Asian tsunami. The group, registered as a non-governmental organization with the French authorities, sought to aid children affected by the tsunami, and brought a boy to France for an operation.
According to its Web site, the group announced plans in April for “evacuating orphans from Darfur,” appealing for donations and host families on the Internet.
Established French aid and adoption agencies raised questions about the group’s plans and alerted French judicial authorities, according to French media reports.
The French Foreign Ministry warned families in August to be careful about the group, given the sensitivity of the situation in Darfur and the legal questions surrounding international adoption. The group initially promised some families that they could adopt – not merely host – children from Darfur, French officials have said.
Some 300 families reportedly signed up, and many were waiting at a French airport last week for the children when they heard members of the group had been arrested. Media reports said some of the children wore phony bandages to make them look injured and in need of help.
French news reports have said the group raised $792,000 for the thwarted operation, including the costs of chartering the plane.
Christophe Letien, a spokesman for the charity, insisted its intentions were merely humanitarian.
“The team is made up of firefighters, doctors and journalists,” he said at a news conference. “It’s unimaginable that doubts are being cast on these people of good faith, who volunteered to save children from Darfur.”
Gilbert Collard, a lawyer for the group, said the charges against his clients were less severe than he had feared, given the harsh comments by Deby.
“Now we are going to work with Chadian lawyers and contest all the elements against them, one by one,” he said. “We are entering difficult territory, but one that is now clearly defined.”
French Justice Minister Rachida Dati said France and Chad had a judicial agreement that would enable the French citizens to return home to face trial, but said Chad had not chosen to do so.
Andreani, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said Tuesday that France was sending a doctor and legal adviser to meet with the group’s detained members.