Nine French nationals face kidnapping charges in Chad

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Darfur refugee camp in Chad.
Image: Mark Knobil.

Nine French nationals, that were arrested after they were caught trying to airlift over a hundred children from the country, will face charges of kidnapping, officials in Chad say. Seven Spanish nationals, who were the crew of the plane, will face charges of being complicit. Two Chadians were also charged.

The French, six of whom are members of a charity by the name of "Zoe's Ark," say that they were trying to rescue the children from the humanitarian crisis that is resulting from the Darfur conflict. The other three are journalists, there to cover the "rescue."

The prosecutor in Abéché, Ahmat Daoud, said: "For the nine French people it is a matter of kidnapping of well as extortion." They face 20 years in prison if convicted.

"Zoe's Ark" describes the children as orphans and says that they would have a better life in Europe. "The team is made up of firemen, doctors and journalists," said spokesperson, Christophe Letien, 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." However, French news agency CAPA published an interview in which a "Zoe's Ark" member said they could not be completely sure the children were orphans in need of help.

According to Annette Rehrl, spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, few of the children appear to actually be orphans. "They keep saying that they want to return to their parents. Most of them are between three and six years old. It’s very difficult to ask three-year-olds their names and where they come from. Also, some children have already changed their names and stories," Rehrl said.

French officials say that they warned the group against this operation for months. "Zoe's Ark" offices in France were searched to see if the group broke French adoption law by promising families that they could adopt and not just host the children.

The President of Chad, Idriss Déby, says that it is a case of "kidnap, pure and simple." He further suggested that "Zoe's Ark" may have sought to supply the children to pedophile rings or use them as donors for organ transplant.

The European Union is about to deploy a peacekeeping force, which includes French soldiers, along the border between Chad and Sudan. Déby has assured his French counterpart, Nicolas Sarkozy, he will not attempt to block the EU troops.