France orders probe in Chad kidnap case

Other News Materials 3 November 2007 22:08 (UTC +04:00)

( AP ) - The French prime minister on Saturday ordered an investigation into a French charity accused of kidnapping 103 African children from Chad. Seven suspects in the case appeared at a pretrial hearing in Chad's capital.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon asked for a probe, to be led by the Defense and Foreign ministries, that will examine how the group was able to work in Chad without the knowledge of the French Embassy in N'Djamena, a statement from the prime minister's office said. A report is expected within a month.

Seven Europeans appeared at the hearing in the capital, where a Chadian military transport plane had taken them Friday, along with the other 10 accused.

Prosecutors had asked that the case be moved from the eastern city where the group was arrested.

The charity calling itself Zoe's Ark was stopped last week from flying children from eastern Chad to Europe, where the group said it intended to place them with host families. The group says its intentions were purely humanitarian and that it had conducted investigations over several weeks to determine the children were orphans.

France's Foreign Ministry and others have cast doubt on the claims that the children were in fact orphans and that they came from Sudan's western Darfur region, where fighting since 2003 has forced thousands to flee to Chad, and led directly or indirectly to the deaths of more than 200,000 people.

Aid workers who interviewed the children Zoe's Ark had tried to fly out said Thursday most of them had been living with adults whom they considered to be their parents, and came from villages on the Chadian-Sudanese border.

The head of the charity was in court Saturday, along with three journalists and three Spanish flight crew, lawyers said. The purpose of the hearing was not immediately known.

The suspects have been held since last week by Chadian authorities and they include six French citizens, who were charged with kidnapping.

Chadian authorities also detained French journalists who had accompanied the Zoe's Ark team, along with the crew of the plane they planned to use to take the children to France. The crew included Spaniards and a Belgian pilot.

Late Thursday, President Idriss Deby said on state television that he hoped journalists and the flight crew would be freed soon.

The U.N.'s Children Fund, the U.N. refugee agency and the international Red Cross said in a statement Thursday that workers for those agencies had examined the children and treated some for small injuries, but found that none appeared to be suffering from serious health conditions.

French Human Rights Minister Rama Yade met Friday with relatives of the journalists held in Chad, and she was also expected to meet with relatives of Zoe's Ark members.

"We are trying first to get the journalists and the air crew out - that's our first priority," said David Martinon, a spokesman for French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

In its Friday edition, the French newspaper Le Parisien reproduced part of a document it said the head of Zoe's Ark, Eric Breteau, submitted to Chadian authorities. The document said the group planned to open a children's center in eastern Chad that was to include a medical center and lodging, but, according to the newspaper, it said nothing of sending any children to France.

Asked about Le Parisien's report, a lawyer for Zoe's Ark, Gilbert Collard, said Zoe's Ark could have submitted more than one mission statement.

The lawyer also insisted his clients were "dreamers" - "not hoodlums." He said the charges against them did "not hold up" and that his clients "did not commit any crime."