French charity workers face jail for 'abducting children'

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Sixteen Europeans, including nine French people who claimed to be on a mission to save war orphans from Darfur, could be facing stiff sentences and hard labour after they attempted to airlift 103 children out of Chad.

Members of the group, which is linked to a French charity called l'Arche de Zoé (Zoe's Ark), were charged yesterday in eastern Chad with extortion and child abduction. Amid evidence that the 103 children are not necessarily sick, orphaned or even from Darfur, the failed mercy mission has grown into a diplomatic scandal that could jeopardise international plans to deploy peacekeepers in the borderlands of the troubled Sudanese region.

President Nicolas Sarkozy has hurried to distance his administration from the manoeuvrings of l'Arche de Zoé. "They were wrong to do what they did," said the President yesterday, adding that he had spoken to his Chadian counterpart, Idriss Déby, and "assured him that I condemn this activity".

The 16 Europeans – nine French and seven Spanish – were arrested last Thursday as they tried to fly the children out of Abéché, an eastern Chadian town that has become a humanitarian aid base for camps feeding refugees from neighbouring Darfur. A Belgian pilot and two Chadians were detained separately.

The children were due to be housed with host families in France who paid more than ¿2,000 (£1,400) each to l'Arche de Zoé after the group launched a fundraising action for the mission in April.

The governor of Abéché, Touka Ramadan, said he had met some of the children, who are as young as three. "Most of them are not orphans and are in good health. I spoke to a 10-year-old girl who was kidnapped. Her mother is dead but her father was in the fields when the abductors came."

Some of the children who have been interviewed by UN workers at Abéché airport, and have been moved to an orphanage in the town, say they were lured from their villages on the Chad-Sudan border with offers of sweets and biscuits.

It would appear that l'Arche de Zoé used local middlemen, such as village chiefs and low-ranking civil servants, whom they paid to bring the children from distant villages. According to some reports, local bureaucrats were given backhanders to produce certificates showing that the children were orphans.

The group denies any wrongdoing. Its lawyer, Gilbert Collard, said: "There have been no abductions. All one can concede is that there has been an anarchic disrespect for the formalism of the humanitarian sector." Christophe Letien, the spokesman for l'Arche de Zoé, said the group was "going to get our team out of prison as soon as possible" and would "prove that these children were in distress."

The group, set up by French 4x4 enthusiasts and formally registered as a charity in 2005, launched its Darfur campaign in April this year. The stated aim was "to evacuate 10,000 children and find host families for them". Its president, Eric Breteau, a former volunteer fireman, is among those in custody.

President Déby, whose landlocked country has strained to cope with the overspill of almost 250,000 refugees from Darfur, has been uncompromising in his condemnation of the French group. After the arrests, he denounced "a crime against children" and called for stiff penalties. He suggested the children could have ended up being sold to a paedophile ring or used to supply human organs.

"So this is the image of the saviour Europe, which gives lessons to our countries. This is the image of Europe which helps Africans," Chad's official presidency website quoted Mr Déby as saying.

For France, which has military bases in Chad and close diplomatic relations with the oil-rich country, the scandal could not have come at a worse time. Paris is due to provide the bulk of a EU peacekeeping force that is due to start deploying in eastern Chad next month to protect Darfur refugees. The case may have been complicated by President Déby's current ire against the French police and judicial system, which has failed to make progress in the investigation into the killing of his son, Brahim Deby, in a Paris suburban car park in December last year.

Yesterday, the French Foreign Affairs minister Rama Yade nevertheless stood up for the government's handling of l'Arche de Zoé, telling parliament the group had been cautioned in July against making its supporters believe they would be adopting Darfur orphans. "Beyond that what could we do?" she asked. "Should we have jailed the organisers as a preventive measure?"

There was a suggestion yesterday that the French authorities would try to negotiate lenient sentences for the group and the release of the Spanish, Belgian and Chadian detainees who were all logistics workers.