Mon, Nov 05, 2007 - Page 6 News List

Sarkozy flies to Chad for talks on charity detainees

DIPLOMACY Charges were dropped against three French journalists and four Spanish air hostesses, but six French and three Spaniards may still face trial

AFP , N'DJAMENA

A Chadian judge yesterday ordered the release of seven Europeans jailed over a charity's attempt to take more than 100 children to France, as French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived in N'Djamena.

Sarkozy was greeted by Chadian President Idriss Deby Itno at the airport and the leaders immediately went into talks over the fate of 17 Europeans, including six French charity workers, accused of attempting to kidnap the children.

The 17 foreigners and four Chadians were charged after the Zoe's Ark charity tried to fly 103 children out of the eastern Chadian city of Abeche on Oct. 25.

But a judge ordered all charges against three French journalists and four Spanish air hostesses to be dropped, lawyer Jean-Bernard Padare said.

The seven "will come to collect their personal belongings at the court in N'Djamena and then go to the airport," Padare said.

Sarkozy was expected to return home later in the day with the journalists but a Spanish official said in Madrid that the four flight attendants could take a separate plane back to Spain.

The six remaining French nationals face charges of attempted kidnapping, while three other Spanish crew members of the flight that was to airlift the children to France are accused of complicity.

A 75-year-old Belgian pilot who flew the children from the Sudanese border to Abeche has also been charged with complicity.

If convicted, they could be sentenced to between five and 20 years of forced labor.

Zoe's Ark has maintained that its operation was to save orphans from the bloody war in Sudan's Darfur region, across the border from Chad, and that they would be placed in the care of host families in France.

But UN humanitarian agencies and the Red Cross cast doubt on the claims, saying most of the children were actually Chadian and may not have been orphans at all.

Deby last week said he hoped the French journalists and Spanish flight attendants would be freed soon, taking a more conciliatory tone after his initial outrage over the charity's operation.

The Chadian president had accused the charity of trying to "sell" the children to "pedophile NGOs" and attempting to "kill them for their organs" in remarks that brought considerable tension to relations with France, the former colonial power.

The Zoe's Ark affair has embarrassed the French government as it prepares to take charge of a European peacekeeping mission to protect refugees in Chad and in the Central African Republic.

At a hearing in N'Djamena on Saturday, the head of the charity told the investigating judge that the journalists and Spanish flight attendants were not involved in the airlift operation, clearing the way for their release.

The three journalists who were released were Marc Garmirian of the Capa television news agency, Jean-Daniel Guillou of the Synchro X photo agency and Marie-Agnes Peleran from France 3 television.

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