Europeans risk kidnapping charge over Chad 'adoptions'

( AFP ) - France's ambassador to Chad said Sunday that six charity workers risking kidnap charges for trying to fly 103 children to France from the Chad-Darfur border must face the consequences of their acts.

Bruno Foucher visited the orphanage in the eastern town of Abeche where the children, aged one to 10, were taken into care Thursday just before the French charity Arche de Zoe (Zoe's Ark) put them on a plane to France.

"This is a completely illegal operation," he told reporters. "The members of (the operation) Children Rescue who took part in this entire illegal manipulation will be held accountable for their actions in Chad."

Nine French nationals -- six members of the operation and three journalists -- and the seven Spanish crew of the chartered aircraft were in custody in Abeche and were expected to be told of the charges against them by Monday.

A Belgian pilot who flew the children as far as Abeche was also taken into custody on Sunday, a Chadian official said. The Belgian foreign ministry said it had tried to contact the pilot on Sunday, but could not confirm his whereabouts.

Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno has promised "severe punishment" for what he describes as a "kidnapping" or "child trafficking" operation, suggesting the group were seeking to sell the children or "kill them and remove their organs."

Zoe's Ark representatives in Paris insist they mounted the "Children Rescue" operation in good faith, hoping to evacuate a group of orphans whose lives were at risk in Sudan's war-torn region of Darfur, over the Chadian border.

The charity says it was given statements from local tribal leaders that all the children were Darfur orphans with no known relatives.

UNICEF said after interviewing the children -- 88 boys and 22 girls, all in good health -- that most appear to be Chadian, not Darfuri, and that there was no evidence they were orphans.

Chad's aviation authority says it delivered a flight permit to the group for a sanitary evacuation "not a kidnapping".

The botched operation has sparked concern in France, where the children were reportedly to be adopted or fostered by families who each paid 2,800-6,000 euros (4,000-8,600 dollars), allegedly to cover evacuation costs.

France condemned the operation as "illegal" and "irresponsible", saying it warned Zoe's Ark months ago that it risked breaking the law. French police have been investigating the charity's activities since July.

Zoe's Ark -- whose members were granted access to French military aircraft and facilities in Chad -- says the French government did nothing to stop it.

"We did all there was to do to stop this taking place. If it did go head it was in the most clandestine way imaginable," France's junior minister for human rights Rama Yade told a press conference.

She accused the charity of "obvious dissimulation", saying it had changed its name to Children Rescue once in Chad.

French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner telephoned Deby on Saturday to assure him of his "solidarity".

Aid groups working in eastern Chad, home to some 236,000 cross-border refugees from Darfur as well as some 173,000 people displaced by a local rebellion, have firmly condemned the operation.

Zoe's Ark was founded by a volunteer firefighter, Eric Breteau -- among those arrested in Chad -- to provide assistance to victims of the December 2004 Asian tsunami.

The Children Rescue operation initially planned to fly 10,000 children out of Darfur to Europe, a plan attacked as "irresponsible" and amateurish by adoption and humanitarian groups.

One would-be adoptive parent, Guillemette Faure, told AFP she contacted Zoe's Ark but was scared off by a "blurring of lines between fostering and adoption" and the lack of guarantees the children were orphans.

But she said she was "uncomfortable" to hear the group described as "child traffickers".

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