Chad charges French, Spanish over children flight

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ABECHE, Chad, Oct 30 (Reuters) Chadian authorities charged nine French nationals today with abduction and fraud after they were detained trying to fly 103 children to live with families in Europe, Chad's government said.

Seven Spanish citizens, the crew of the charter plane used in the operation, were charged with being accessories to the crimes, Communications Minister Hourmadji Moussa Doumgor said.

The 16 Europeans were detained on Thursday as they tried to fly 103 African children out of Abeche in eastern Chad. A Belgian pilot has been detained separately but was not cited in today's charges.

Doumgor said the group would probably be transferred this week from Abeche, near Chad's eastern border with Sudan, to the capital N'Djamena in the west.

The accused include the president and other members of French organisation Zoe's Ark, which has said it intended to help the children, not abduct them, and that it acted legally. Two French journalists are also among the group.

The children were due to be housed in host families who paid the group several thousand euros each.

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.

Some of the children have said their parents were still alive and they were lured from their villages on the Chad-Sudan border with offers of sweets and biscuits.

Zoe's Ark had previously said it aimed to have children adopted but stopped referring to adoption, which is not authorised in Chad or Sudan, after France's Foreign Ministry issued a warning about the group in August. The ministry said there was no guarantee the children were helpless orphans.

POLITICAL Gilbert Collard, a lawyer for Zoe's Ark, accused Chad's government of using the situation for political ends. He said the children were from a region on the border between Chad and Sudan and ''we are unable to tell which country they are from''.

Chadian President Idriss Deby has called the operation ''pure and simple abduction'' and demanded tough penalties for those responsible. He suggested the children could have ended up being sold to a paedophile ring or used to supply human organs.

''These people ... treat us like animals. So this is the image of the saviour Europe, which gives lessons to our countries. This is the image of Europe which helps Africans,'' Chad's official presidency Web site quoted Deby as saying.

The incident threatens to complicate relations between France and its former colony. A predominantly French European Union force is preparing to deploy in eastern Chad, one of Africa's most violent regions, to protect civilians there.

The French ambassador in Chad has said those involved in trying to fly out the children would have to face Chadian justice.

''We hope the Spanish, who in the end were those that did the transport, are not responsible, remain uninvolved and can return home as quickly as possible,'' Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos said late yesterday.

Reuters PD DB1344

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