( AP ) - Aid agencies say children in dire circumstances - even those in the inhospitable Saharan camps to which Darfur refugees have fled - need their families, not to be flown to the comforts of the West as a charity wanted to do.
Seventeen Europeans have been detained since Thursday after authorities stopped a French group calling itself Zoe's Ark from flying 103 African children from Chad to Europe. Six of the 17 were French citizens who have been charged with kidnapping.
Zoe's Ark said the children were orphans from Darfur - the western Sudanese region that has for the last four years been a battleground for rebels, government troops and government-allied militiamen - and it intended to place them with French host families. The group says its intentions were purely humanitarian.
The French Foreign Ministry and others, however, have suggested many of the children are from Chad and their parents are alive. And a Chadian human rights worker said the group had not made clear to the Chadian government that it intended to take the children out of the country.
Save the Children, the international child advocacy and aid group, said it did not support taking children from their families.
"Separating children from their family or moving them across the border is obviously something very difficult to regulate and that's something that STC tries to advocate against because it exposes them to more risk of exploitation," said Aurelie Lamaziere of Save the Children UK, who was recently in Chad.
The Zoe's Ark campaign was also condemned in a joint statement distributed by Oxfam and signed by several international aid and development organizations working in Chad.
"The action has not only placed these children under tremendous stress, it has also seriously violated their human rights. With the prompt intervention by the Chadian authorities ... the children have been protected from potentially facing further trauma," the organizations said.
There are also fears children spirited out of Africa could be exploited by sex or labor traffickers. While there is no reason to believe Zoe's Ark's intentions were suspect, it was operating in circumstances found across Africa that others could exploit.
"The warning bells that this incident rings is whether in fact there is exploitation of the desperation that parents in countries in Africa might face in terms of wanting to give their children a better choice," said Kumi Naidoo, a director of CIVICUS, an international human and civil rights organization.
Naidoo also expressed concern about the possible "exploitation of the vulnerability of people in rich countries" moved to support such efforts.
Nadjikimo Benoudjita, publisher of the independent Chadian weekly L'Autre Temps, questioned why the Zoe's Ark attempt was drawing so much attention in a country where children have been recruited by armed groups and are forced to work as domestic servants or to marry early. Indeed, the plight of African children has attracted international attention, and prompted many to try to help.
According to its Web site, Zoe's Ark, founded in 2005 by volunteer firefighter Eric Breteau, announced in April it planned on "evacuating orphans from Darfur." The group launched an appeal for host families and funding.
Established French aid and adoption agencies raised questions about how the group could legally organize adoption of children from Darfur, and alerted French judicial authorities, according to French newspaper reports.
The French Foreign Ministry in August warned families to be careful. Still, some 300 families reportedly signed up to adopt or foster children, and many were waiting at a French airport last week for the children when they heard members of the group had been arrested.
Governments need to monitor such activity, said Boniface Mandere, from Eye of the Child, a children's rights group in Malawi, who raised concerns about pop star Madonna's adoption of a boy from the southern African country and the dangers of such adoptions of poor Africans by rich Westerners.
If governments aren't vigilant, "you are not going to know who exactly is taking the child," Mandere said.
Mandere has pushed his government in Malawi to tighten regulations on foreign adoptions, saying traffickers could exploit loopholes in the law. Chad does have such regulations and has signed international treaties governing foreign adoptions, said Ramadan Hamat, a Chadian human rights worker.
Hamat said that over the last two days, several mothers had arrived in Abeche, eastern Chad's main city, to see if their children were among those Zoe's Ark had planned to fly out. He also said he and his team examined the children, some of whom were bandaged, and found none were injured or ill.
"I was very shocked by this failed attempt to kidnap the children," said Hamat, the representative in northeastern Chad of the Association for the Promotion of Fundamental Liberties, an independent human rights organization.
Of the 17 people detained in Abeche, the six French citizens charged with kidnapping face up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Three French journalists traveling with the Zoe's Ark members and an eight-member flight crew were also detained as prosecutors tried to determine whether they should be charged. There had been reports that some had been charged or would be charged with complicity in the crime, but Hamat said that was not the case.
In a phone conversation, French President Nicolas Sarkozy asked Chadian President Idriss Deby to free the journalists "as soon as possible, with respect to Chadian legislation," Sarkozy spokesman David Martinon said. Sarkozy, who has condemned the group's actions, took a softer tone Wednesday and appealed to Deby to respect the presumption of innocence in the case.
Deby promised Sarkozy he would do "everything in his power" to liberate the French journalists being held, the office of the French president said.
Belgian lawyer Xavier Magnee, who was representing the Belgian pilot, said his client thought he was helping children in danger.