Chad children say were offered sweets to leave home

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ABECHE, Chad, Oct 29 (Reuters) Europeans offered sweets and biscuits to encourage poor African children to leave their homes, children said, as Chad probed an operation to ship out young children to live with families in Europe.

Aid workers caring for the children in Chad's eastern city of Abeche, where authorities detained nine French nationals on Thursday as they prepared to fly 103 children to France, yesterday said the children's accounts had not yet been verified.

French charity ''Zoe's Ark'' promoted the scheme as offering a better life to orphans from Sudan's war-torn Darfur region, many of whose people have fled over the border to camps in Chad.

But some children said their parents are still alive, and they were taken from their villages on the Chad-Sudan border.

''My parents had gone to work in the fields. As we were playing some Chadians came and said here are some sweets, why don't you follow us to Adre and then we'll take you home. We were taken to the hospital in Adre,'' said a young boy who gave his name as Osman. Adre is a town on the Chad-Sudan border.

''We spent seven days in Adre and I've been here in Abeche for more than one month. We were well fed by the whites, there was always food. I would like to go back to find my parents,'' he told reporters at the Abeche orphanage where the children are being cared for by local and international aid workers.

France has condemned the operation and the Paris prosecutor's office opened an investigation last week into ''illegal exercise of intermediary activities with the aim of adoption,'' but diplomats said they would face Chadian justice.

The office of French President Nicolas Sarkozy said Sarkozy had contacted Chad President Idriss Deby to discuss the situation. Sarkozy again reiterated his condemnation of the actions of Zoe's Ark.

The seven members of the charter plane's crew, all Spanish citizens, are also being held by Chadian police.

''I'LL TAKE YOU HOME'' Ten-year-old Mariam, who was one of the group along with her younger sister, said their mother was dead but their father was still alive.

''A car came with two whites and one black man who spoke Arabic. The driver said come with me, I'll give you some money and biscuits and then I'll take you home,'' she said.

''We were taken to the white people's house and they gave us medicine -- small white tablets. I was not ill. All the children were given pills. They told us that we would no longer be able to go home,'' Mariam said.

Hamsa Brahim, also 10, said he had left the border village of Adikoum, near Adre, with his father's permission after the visitors promised the children an education.

''The whites came, they said they would enrol us in school ... They came four times to take children from our village -- many children went with them,'' he said.

A French diplomat has said around 300 families in France and Belgium paid 2,800 to 6,000 euros (4,000-8,600 dollars) per child to have them flown to an airport in Vatry, east of Paris, where families hoping to welcome them waited Thursday night in vain.

France's Foreign Ministry issued a warning about Zoe's Ark in August, saying there was no guarantee the children were helpless orphans and casting doubt on the project's legality.

France's ambassador to Chad, Bruno Foucher, said the French nationals would have to face Chadian justice.

''I think this situation is scandalous and our efforts and those of the French government have been centred on these children who were taken from their villages, and to make sure this never happens again. It's an operation which was completely illegal,'' Foucher told reporters in Abeche.

''The members of the association ''Children Rescue'' (a name used by the group in Chad) who took part in this whole illegal manipulation will answer for their acts in Chad,'' he said.

REUTERS SYU KP0835

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