Authorities in Chad released three Spanish flight crew members and a Belgian pilot detained in a suspected kidnapping plot by a French charity that tried to fly more than 100 African children to Europe, a defense lawyer said on Friday.
One of the three Spaniards smiled and gave a thumbs-up signal as he left the courthouse in the Chadian capital, N'Djamena.
The trio later left Chad on a Spanish government jet and were expected to arrive in Madrid on Friday night, Spanish officials said. The Belgian was to leave later on a Belgian military aircraft, the Foreign Ministry said.
Chadian lawyer Jean-Bernard Padare, representing the freed Europeans, said the four had been charged with complicity in the alleged kidnapping plot but were ordered released by a judge.
Six workers with the French charity Zoe's Ark remain in custody in Chad. They are charged with the attempted kidnapping of 103 children. A conviction could mean 20 years of hard labor in prison.
Spain hailed the release of its citizens.
"I want to take the opportunity to express from here our sincerest gratitude to the government of Chad and the judicial authorities for this decision," Spanish Deputy Prime Minister Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega said.
Spain's prime minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, thanked Chadian President Idriss Deby in a phone call, Spanish officials said.
In total, 17 Europeans were arrested after Zoe's Ark was stopped on Oct. 25 from flying the children to Europe. The group said the children were from Darfur and that it intended to place them with host families.
Zoe's Ark maintains its intentions were humanitarian and that it had conducted investigations over several weeks to determine that the children were orphans.
However, 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.
French investigators are also looking into the activities of the aid group. In Paris on Friday, investigating judges searched the office of the Capa media agency.
Capa reporter Marc Garmirian was among several journalists detained in the case and released last Sunday. He filmed the group for weeks before they were arrested. The judges are looking into possible charges of illegal adoption and fraud against the aid group.
Three French journalists and three female Spanish flight crew members were released last Sunday and flown from the country by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. 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.