Charity 'smuggled Darfur war orphans to France for £4,000'

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The Independent Online

A French charity lured African children from their homes with sweets and biscuits and tried to fly them to France as Darfur war "orphans", it was alleged yesterday.

Statements by the children – many of whom were Chadian, not Darfurian – have deepened the confusion and embarrassment surrounding the activities of a shadowy group calling itself "Zoe's Arc".

Eight leaders of the group, and seven Spanish charter-plane crew members, have been arrested in Chad and accused of trying to smuggle 103 children out of the country without authority. The French government has condemned the activities of the group, which is alleged to have collected up to €6,000 per child from families in France and Belgium.

Would-be host families – some of whom had been led to believe that they could adopt the children – gathered at the Vatry freight and charter airport near Rheims last Thursday night. The children never arrived. The leader of Zoe's Arc, Eric Breteau, and seven of his associates, were arrested by Chadian authorities just before they were due to take off with the children in a Spanish charter plane.

Paris has declared the operation "illegal and irresponsible" and says that it did all in its power to persuade Zoe's Arc that its plans were unwelcome and, possibly, criminal.

It emerged yesterday, however, that French military personnel, present in Chad as part of the Darfur relief effort, had assisted Zoe's Arc on several occasions in recent weeks. Members of the group were given lifts in French military planes on three occasions.

But French authorities insisted that these were mistakes, caused by the fact that the "charity" had adopted a different name – Children's Rescue – for its activities within Chad.

The French ambassador to Chad, Bruno Foucher, said the eight French citizens would have to face the Chadian courts. "I think this situation is scandalous. Our efforts ... have been centred on these children who were taken from their villages to make sure this never happens again. It's an operation which was completely illegal," he added.

The children, many of them dressed in European football shirts, are being cared for by aid workers in Abeche, in eastern Chad. Unicef officials said that some, at least, of the children were not Darfurian but Chadian. Many of them told journalists yesterday that they were not orphans.

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