Most of the 103 African children whom a French group had prepared to fly to Europe were not Darfur orphans as claimed, but had been living with their families in eastern Chad, UN agencies said yesterday.
Members of the French association Zoe's Ark were arrested in Abeche, Chad, last week after they were caught trying to fly the children to Europe and hand them to French and Belgian "host" families. They were charged with abduction and fraud and face possible forced labour terms of up to 20 years if convicted.
Chad's president, Idriss Deby, said last night that he hoped two French journalists and several Spanish flight attendants held with them would soon be freed. The journalists had been covering the Zoe's Ark operation and the airline crew worked on a plane chartered to transport the children. A Spanish and a Belgian pilot and at least two Chadians are also being held.
Mr Deby was less hopeful about the quick release of the Spanish pilot, but said Chad's justice system would decide.
The French group had insisted they were acting for humanitarian reasons to save Darfur war orphans and that local tribal chiefs had testified the children were sick, destitute and had no families.
But after interviewing most of the children, aged between one and 10, UN agencies and the International Red Cross confirmed that 91 said they had been "living with their families consisting of at least one adult they considered to be their parent".
"They are not orphans and they were not sitting alone in the desert in Chad, they were living with their families in communities," said Annette Rehrl of the UN high commission for refugees.
The interviews suggested 85 of the children came from villages in eastern Chad on the border with Darfur. It did not specify their nationality. Some had told journalists that their parents were alive and they were lured from their villages with offers of sweets and biscuits.
On Wednesday night Congo-Brazzaville suspended international adoptions as a "preventive measure" in the aftermath of events in Chad. ( Guardian )