French President Nicolas Sarkozy was en route to Chad on Sunday to discuss the fate of 16 Europeans facing abduction and fraud charges for trying to fly 103 African children to Europe, a presidential spokesman said.
"The president is en route to N'Djamena to see his counterpart (President) Idriss Deby," a spokesman for the French president said in a statement.
Sarkozy would address the issue of the European nationals being held in Chad over accusations they illegally tried to fly the children out of Africa to families in Europe, the spokesman added.
Nine French and seven Spanish nationals were arrested in the eastern town of Abeche, near the border with Sudan's war-torn Darfur region, just over a week ago as they tried to fly the children, aged between one and 10 years, to Europe.
Six of the French are members of a group called Zoe's Ark, which has said that it intended to place orphans from Darfur with European families for foster care and that it had the right to do so under international law. The three others are journalists.
Sarkozy has personally appealed to Deby to free the French journalists and urged a mutually satisfactory solution "so that no one loses face".
Sarkozy's spokesman said the French president's meeting with Deby would focus on consular protection of the French nationals and on judicial cooperation between France and Chad.
U.N. and Chadian officials say most of the infants had come from families with at least one parent living on the violent Chad-Sudan border, contradicting the "war orphans" description of the children given by Zoe's Ark.
On Saturday, a heavy military escort brought four members of the Spanish air crew, still in their uniforms, and three French journalists to the main law courts in the dusty capital, N'Djamena, to be questioned by the examining magistrate.
Once all the accused have been questioned, a tribunal will compare their statements before the magistrate decides whether there is sufficient evidence for a trial, a process likely to take several days.
The affair is an embarrassment for former colonial ruler France, which is an ally of Chad and has troops and aircraft stationed in the landlocked country.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon asked Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Defence Minister Herve Morin on Saturday to launch investigations into the case. ( Reuters )