France to help detainees in Chad child case

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PARIS, Oct 29 (Reuters) France will offer full assistance to nine French nationals facing charges in Chad for trying to smuggle 103 children from Africa to Europe, Human Rights Minister Rama Yade said today.

Yade, who meets non-governmental organisations later on Monday, said the planned operation by the charity group ''Zoe's Ark'' had been irresponsible but said France would not abandon its citizens and would offer ''maximum consular assistance''.

''France is a good mother, we will be with these French nationals to protect them as far as we can, to guarantee their rights and we will never leave them,'' she told Europe 1 radio.

''The families should be assured, despite the errors and offences committed by this association, we will be by the side of our citizens,'' she said.

The nine French citizens are part of a group of 17 Europeans Chad accuses of trying to abduct the children.

''Zoe's Ark'' said the operation offered 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 have said their parents are still alive, and they lured from their villages on the Chad-Sudan border with offers of sweets and biscuits.

The French government has repeatedly condemned the operation and France's ambassador to Chad said yesterday those involved would have to face Chadian justice.

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.

''The road to hell is paved with good intentions,'' Yade said.

''And it is important that there should be an individual responsibility on the part of those who launch into these operations,'' she said.

French daily Le Figaro quoted a local journalist who had been allowed to see, but not speak to, the detainees as saying they seemed weakened but did not appear to have suffered from mistreatment. It quoted a Chadian journalist as saying Chadian Justice Minister Albert Padacke had met magistrates at the weekend to discuss possible penalties.

''They spoke of 20 years imprisonment with forced labour,'' the newspaper quoted the journalist as saying.

It said Padacke had denied that but had declined to comment on possible penalties, citing ''the principle of separation of powers''.

REUTERS SKB KN1532

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