Chad frees pilot held in kidnap plot

Other News Materials 11 November 2007 15:42 (UTC +04:00)

( AP ) - An ailing Belgian pilot charged with complicity in an alleged kidnapping attempt by a French charity working in Chad said Saturday he had no regrets about his role in transporting the group.

Chadian authorities released Jacques Wilmart on Friday, along with three Spanish flight crew members. All are charged with complicity in a plan to fly children to Europe whom the group claims were orphans from the conflict-ravaged Darfur region of Sudan. The Spaniards returned home Friday.

Wilmart, 74, who fell ill Thursday, left Saturday in a Belgian Air Force plane. While being transferred from an ambulance to the plane, he said he was happy to return home but his thoughts were with the children.

Asked if he regretted ferrying the French group, Zoe's Ark, around eastern Chad, Wilmart replied: "Never. I followed my conscience."

"For me, it was to save children. You can never regret that. You can imprison people but you can't stop them from their ideas and you can't break them," he told journalists in N'Djamena, the capital of Chad. He later arrived at a military airport near Brussels.

Jean-Bernard Padare, a Chadian lawyer representing the freed Europeans, said the four were ordered released by a judge.

Six workers with Zoe's Ark remain in custody in Chad, charged with the attempted kidnapping of 103 children. A conviction could mean 20 years in prison at hard labor.

In total, 17 Europeans were arrested after Zoe's Ark was stopped Oct. 25 from flying the children to Europe. Zoe's Ark maintains its intentions were humanitarian.

France's Foreign Ministry and others have cast doubt on the claim that the children were orphans from Darfur, where fighting since 2003 has forced thousands to flee to Chad. Aid workers who interviewed the children said a majority of them reported living with at least one adult they considered a parent and that many appeared to be Chadian.

Spain's prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, thanked Chadian President Idriss Deby in a phone call for releasing the Spaniards, Spanish officials said.

In Paris, French authorities are investigating the activities of the aid group.

The judges are looking into charges of illegal adoption and fraud against the group, which had selected host families in France to take the children in.

The Spaniards were contracted by Zoe's Ark to fly the children to France. The Belgian, also hired by the French charity, had piloted a plane carrying some of the children around Chad.