Chad raps Sarkozy vow over Europeans

Chad on Tuesday rejected as "inopportune" a promise by French President Nicolas Sarkozy that he would go back to the African country to bring home a group of Europeans accused of abducting 103 children.

Chad's justice minister said the country's judiciary would remain independent from political pressure and the interior minister insisted the Europeans still detained should be tried in Chad and serve their sentences there.

Sarkozy flew on Sunday to the former French colony in a high-profile mission that obtained the release of three French journalists and four Spanish air hostesses, part of a group of 17 Europeans arrested last month in the case of the children.

But 10 still remain in custody in Chad, including six members of French humanitarian activist group Zoe's Ark who are charged with abduction and fraud for trying to fly the 103 African children out of Chad without proper authorisation. Three Spanish aircrew and a Belgian pilot are charged as accomplices.

"I will go and get those still there, whatever they may have done," Sarkozy said on Tuesday during a visit to fishermen in northwestern France.

Chad's Justice Minister Albert Pahimi Padacket criticised Sarkozy's public promise as "inopportune".

"(Sarkozy's) statement will have no bearing on the handling of the case before the judge," he said.

Sarkozy's pledge was also at odds with the firm position expressed by Chad's Interior Minister Ahmat Mahamat Bachir, who said the Europeans should be tried and punished on Chadian soil.

"It's perfectly clear, the actions were committed in Chad," Bachir said in an interview with French daily Le Parisien published on Tuesday. "That is why these bandits must be tried and sentenced here."

If convicted, the Zoe's Ark members face possible forced labour terms of between five and 20 years.

During his mission to Chad on Sunday, Sarkozy, whose government has been embarrassed by the affair, said he would rather see French people tried in French courts.

France and Chad have a judicial cooperation agreement that could make it possible for the French to be tried in France.

But Bachir said this would be an "insult" to the Chadian people. "They (the detainees) also have to serve their sentence here: let them taste our prisons," he added.

Among the Europeans detained is a 74-year-old Belgian pilot, Jacques Willemart, who was among several of the accused questioned by Chadian authorities on Tuesday.

His son Patrick, who flew out from Brussels to see his father, said he had suffered from dehydration and low blood pressure in recent days while in detention.

Anger among ordinary Chadians has been running high as evidence has emerged indicating the Zoe's Ark members concealed plans to fly the children to France when they collected the infants aged 1-10 years from villages on the Chad-Sudan border.

At the same time, they told families in Europe they would be evacuating orphans from Sudan's war-torn Darfur region for them to foster. But United Nations aid officials have said 91 of the children were not orphans and had families.

The leaders of Zoe's Ark say they were rescuing the African children from the risk of death and suffering.

But aid agencies in eastern Chad fear the case may tarnish their image and hamper their efforts to help around 400,000 Sudanese refugees and displaced Chadians who have fled violence. ( Reuters )

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