Mon, Oct 29, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Chad could charge crew and members of European charity

AFP , ABECHE, CHAD

Sixteen Europeans being held in Chad after a charity tried to fly more than 100 children from the central African nation to France may face charges, a Chadian minister said on Saturday.

It would be up to a judge to "determine the responsibility of each [crew member]," Justice Minister Albert Pahimi Padacke told reporters in Chad's main eastern city of Abeche.

In a separate telephone interview, Padacke said a meeting was taking place to decide whether to formally charge them.

Nine French nationals, including members of the charity Zoe's Ark and three journalists, were spending their second day in custody on Saturday.

Padacke also confirmed that seven Spanish crew members of the plane that was to carry the children had been detained.

Journalists were briefly allowed to visit Abeche's central police station on Saturday, where the French and the Spanish were being held in a single room.

But reporters were not allowed to speak to the detainees, take pictures or film them.

The 16 were unshackled and did not appear to bear traces of any violence that may have been inflicted during their detention, as one member of the charity had claimed.

The nine French nationals had organized an operation they said aimed to take 103 child orphans from the civil war in Sudan's western province of Darfur to France.

The group was arrested on Thursday in the eastern town of Abeche just before the plane was scheduled to leave.

Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno has demanded "severe punishment" for the charity workers and called it a case of "kidnap, pure and simple."

Deby claimed the charity had "tricked the vigilance of Chad's authorities."

He claimed that they were "acting against the will of parents" and rhetorically asked journalists if the aim was to "sell them or kill them and remove their organs?"

Chadian television late on Friday showed the French handcuffed and seated on the floor in Abeche, as well as boys and girls between one and eight years old. Some of the children were weeping.

The footage also included shots of the Spanish crew.

Zoe's Ark claimed it was flying out the children to "save them from death" in the nearby Darfur civil war.

But a UNICEF representative in Chad's capital N'Djamena said the "massive majority" of the children were from Chad and there was "nothing to say" they were orphans.

The matter has sparked controversy in France, where the children were reportedly to be adopted or fostered by families who paid US$4,000 to US$8,600 to the organization.

The French government has denounced the operation as "illegal" and "irresponsible."

French police have been investigating the charity's activities since July.

But Zoe's Ark claims French authorities never clearly denounced their planned operation -- and even transported charity members on its military planes.

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