UNICEF says Chad children affair breaches intl law

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KHARTOUM, Nov 4 (Reuters) The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) said today that a thwarted bid by European aid workers to fly 103 young Africans out of Chad to place them with new families in France breached international law.

''Our position is that this is not consistent with international norms or practices or laws,'' said Ann Veneman, the head of UNICEF which is now involved in caring for the youngsters and tracking down their relatives.

Sixteen Europeans were arrested in the eastern Chadian town of Abeche last month, near the border with Sudan's war-torn Darfur region, as they sought to fly out the children.

Today Chad authorities released seven of those detained, but 10 others remain in jail. Six members of a French group called Zoe's Ark are charged with fraud and abduction while three members of a Spanish air crew are charged as accessories, as is a Belgian pilot who was arrested later.

Zoe's Ark, has said it intended to help the children, not abduct them, and that it acted legally. The group said it sought authorisation from France to grant safe passage to the children it intended to bring back.

In August the French foreign ministry issued a warning about Zoe's Ark saying there was no guarantee the children, aged between 1 and ten were helpless orphans and cast doubt on the projects legality.

The release of three French journalists and four Spanish flight attendants from among the 17 detainees occurred after French President Nicholas Sarkozy flew to Chad to intervene.

France, the former colonial power, has troops stationed in Chad and will provide about half of the 3,000 European Union forces that will deploy in the violent eastern region.

UNICEF, along with the Red Cross and the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), is helping Chadian authorities look after the children. Attempts are being made to interview the them to determine where they came from.

''It is simply unacceptable to see children taken out of their home countries without complying with national and international laws,'' Veneman told journalists after a three-day visit to Chad's neighbour Sudan.

''This is not something that should be tolerated by the international community.'' UN and Chadian officials say most of the infants come from families with at least one parent living on the violent Chad-Sudan border.

REUTERS PBB AS0236

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