Chad leader wants release of journalists in child case

2nd November 2007, Comments 0 comments

2 November 2007, ABECHE (AFP) - Chad's President Idriss Deby Itno said Thursday he hoped French journalists and Spanish air hostesses detained in the case of an alleged mass child abduction in the country would be freed.

2 November 2007

ABECHE (AFP) - Chad's President Idriss Deby Itno said Thursday he hoped French journalists and Spanish air hostesses detained in the case of an alleged mass child abduction in the country would be freed.

"I would like for my part to see Chadian justice rapidly shed light and see the journalists and the air hostesses released," Deby said. "But it's not up to me to force the hand of the law. There's a procedure."

The Chadian leader confirmed that he had spoken to French President Nicolas Sarkozy and said "it is certainly true that we must make a distinction between the journalists doing their job of news reporting and workers for the Children Rescue NGO," the name under which a French charity launched the operation.

Chad prosecutors have charged 17 Europeans and two Chadians for alleged "kidnap" or complicity in it after the charity, Zoe's Ark (L'Arche de Zoe) tried to fly 103 African children out of Abeche to France on October 25, saying it was saving orphans in the Darfur conflict from certain death.

Nine French nationals -- six members of the charity who say they were acting in good faith and three journalists who were with them -- face a forced labour sentence on charges of kidnapping and extortion, while seven Spanish flight crew have been charged with complicity.

"This really is serious affair," Deby said. "It's obviously a case of child kidnapping. It's a violation of child rights. I think it's a purely legal problem."

A Belgian pilot of 75 was also charged on Wednesday because he had flown the children from the border settlement of Adre to the main eastern town of Abeche, where the Zoe's Ark people were arrested on October 25.

Regarding the Spanish pilot who was poised to airlift the children from eastern Chad to an outer Paris airport where families who had paid to take the children waited, Deby said the "pilot knows Abeche airport well -- he's a risk-taker. It's not an airport with the infrastructure to handle a (Boeing) 757. I'm sure there must be complicity."

The charity workers, who wanted to place the children in French homes, have rejected any suggestion of a kidnap operation, saying they really meant to help distressed refugees.

But their action has caused a storm of protest and diplomatic tension between France and Chad, its former colony in central Africa.

Three international agencies have this week been talking to the children and on Thursday rejected the war orphan label, saying in a joint statement that 91 of them, aged between one and 10, had spoken of a "family environment with at least one adult in a parental role."

"Therefore they cannot be considered to be orphans," International Committee of the Red Cross spokeswoman Anna Schaaf said in Geneva, while the statement the ICRC released with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the UN Children's Fund said most of them were apparently Chadians.

Also on Thursday, the head of the CAPA news agency, whose reporter Marc Garmirian is among those detained, called Deby's comments "a major upturn" in the situation.

Sarkozy had called CAPA chief Herve Chabalier on Wednesday night to tell him "that he had personally invested himself in the affair," said Chabalier.

Meanwhile, M6 television in France announced it would broadcast an investigation filmed by CAPA's Garmirian on Sunday that shows members of the association putting bandages and fake drips on the children to give the impression of a medical evacuation.

Chad's border with strife-wracked Darfur is porous. Villages lie on an unmarked desert frontier.

Deby in person has led military campaigns against Chadian rebels with whom he has just signed his latest peace pact, and his own poverty-stricken country is home to some 300,000 Darfur refugees and internally displaced Chadians.

France, which already has a strong military presence in Chad, is this month due to take charge of a European peacekeeping operation to protect refugees both in Chad and in the neighbouring Central African Republic.

The Zoe's Ark affair has embarrassed the French government ahead of the mission, particularly since the French military has acknowledged providing local air transport for charity members, but said it was on the understanding they were helping distressed children on the spot.


Subject: French news

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