MARSEILLE, France, Oct 29 (Reuters) A French organisation whose members were arrested in Chad as they prepared to fly 103 children to France said today they were trying to help the children, not abduct them, and they acted legally.
Members of Zoe's Ark including its president are among nine French citizens and eight other Europeans that Chad accuses of trying to smuggle the children to Europe.
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.
''We are dealing with humanitarian hardliners who walked off the beaten track,'' Gilbert Collard, a lawyer for Zoe's Ark, told reporters in the southern French city of Marseille.
''They wanted to do things differently -- that doesn't mean they wanted to do it dishonestly,'' he told a news conference.
But some children have said their parents are still alive, and they were lured from their villages on the Chad-Sudan border with offers of sweets and biscuits.
The children were due to be housed in host families who paid the group several thousand euros each. Zoe's Ark had previously said it aimed to have children adopted but it has stopped referring to adoption, which is not authorised in Chad and Sudan.
The French government has repeatedly condemned the operation and France's ambassador to Chad said yesterday those involved would have to face Chadian justice.
The incident threatens to complicate relations between France and its former colony as a predominantly French European Union force prepares to deploy in eastern Chad, one of Africa's most violent regions, to protect civilians there.
''POLITICAL EXPLOITATION'' 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.
''Contrary to what was claimed, these children are not orphans and are not in a situation of distress,'' Chadian Justice Minister Albert Padacke said in an interview with French newspaper L'Est Republicain.
''Some children told me that people took advantage of their parents' absence to abduct them by force,'' he added.
Collard accused Chad's government of using the situation for political ends. ''As of the moment there is a situation of political exploitation, anything is possible''.
He said the children were from a region on the border between Chad and Sudan, adding: ''We are unable to tell which country they are from.'' Zoe's Ark spokesman Chrisophe Letien said the operation was carried out ''in full legality''.
French daily Le Figaro quoted a Chadian journalist who was allowed to see, but not speak to, the detainees as saying they seemed weakened but did not appear to have been mistreated.
It quoted the journalist as saying Padacke had met magistrates at the weekend to discuss possible penalties.
French Secretary of State for Human Rights Rama Yade told Europe 1 radio on Monday France would offer full assistance to the French nationals even though they had acted irresponsibly.
REUTERS GT BD2345