(Reuters) - Chad's authorities brought abduction and fraud charges on Tuesday against nine French and seven Spanish nationals it accused of illegally trying to fly 103 African children to Europe.
A Chadian prosecutor said the French, members of a group called Zoe's Ark which said it wanted to place orphans from Sudan's war-torn Darfur with European families, faced five to 20 years hard labour if convicted in the landlocked African state.
The French group has denied it was acting illegally.
Seven Spanish crew members of the plane chartered for the operation were charged as accessories, along with two Chadians.
Chadian President Idriss Deby has denounced "a crime against children" and demanded stiff penalties. He has suggested the children, aged three to 10 years old, could have ended up being sold to a paedophile ring or used to supply human organs.
The 16 Europeans were arrested on Thursday as they tried to fly the children, believed to be Sudanese and Chadian, out of Abeche in eastern Chad. A Belgian pilot has been detained separately but was not cited in Tuesday's charges.
The case has caused embarrassment for France, which is an ally of Deby and has a military contingent stationed in Chad.
Paris will provide the bulk of a European Union peacekeeping force that is due to start deploying in east Chad next month to protect around 400,000 Sudanese refugees and Chadian civilians who have fled violence spilling over from Darfur.