PARIS, Nov 8 (Reuters) French officials sought to ease tensions with Chad after President Nicolas Sarkozy offended local sensibilities by promising to bring home a group of Europeans accused of abducting 103 African children.
Chad ministers slapped down Sarkozy's comment on Tuesday, saying their own judiciary would handle the case of the self-proclaimed humanitarians, who are charged with abduction and fraud for trying to fly the children to France.
Sarkozy's spokesman said the president had never meant to question Chadian independence, but had simply repeated his preference to see the six French nationals tried at home rather than in N'Djamena, where they are now detained.
''What he said to N'Djamena ... was that obviously everything depends on the decisions of the Chadian judicial authorities. One cannot think differently,'' spokesman David Martinon told reporters in Washington, where Sarkozy is on a state visit.
The French president flew to Chad on Sunday to pick up three French journalists and four Spanish flight attendants who were among 17 Europeans arrested last month as they prepared to fly the children out of the country.
The organisation involved, Zoe's Ark, has said the children were orphans from the neighbouring Darfur region, but UN officials in Chad said almost all the infants had at least one parent and came from the Chad-Sudan borderlands.
French defence lawyers acting for the six detained in Chad said yesterday their clients felt the charges against them completely misrepresented what they had been doing.
''Maybe they were acting outside of classical methods, but their sole goal was to save children from horror and death,'' one of the lawyers, Gilbert Collard, told reporters in N'Djamena.
Another, Mario Stasi, said Zoe's Ark, which worked in Chad under the name of Children Rescue, received material aid from other relief organisations like the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR and the UN children's agency UNICEF, among others.
The head of UNHCR in Chad, Serge Male, said this material help would never have been given had it been known that the Zoe's Ark members planned to fly the children out of Chad.
UNICEF said in a statement that a junior staff member, also unaware of the group's aim, had given milk and armbands to gauge malnutrition in babies worth a total of 130 dollar.
''NOT IN FRANCE!'' The accused face up to 20 years in jail with hard labour if found guilty in Chad. They would get lesser sentences in France and Paris is highlighting the fact that the two countries have a judicial cooperation deal that might make extradition possible.
However, Chad's state lawyer told reporters in N'Djamema that such an accord might be difficult in the Zoe's Ark case and dismissed Sarkozy's pledge to bring the arrested Europeans back home ''whatever they may have done''.
''That's a politician talking. We'll be applying the law and not politics,'' said Philippe Houssine, who represents the Chadian state in the child abduction case.
Outside N'Djamena's main lawcourts building, where the detained Europeans have been questioned, about 50 Chadian protesters demanded that the accused be tried there.
''Not in France, not in France'', they chanted, banging their fists on the roof of a car carrying lawyers representing the French, underscoring the deep emotions the case has provoked.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon also weighed in on the row yesterday, denouncing Zoe's Ark, but adding that French citizens were always entitled to help from Paris.
''This association deceived us,'' Fillon told Europe 1 radio.
''That said, the representatives of this association are French nationals and have the right to the protection of France.'' But opposition politicians sided with Chad, saying the hyperactive Sarkozy had over-extended himself and was trying to take charge of too many difficult dossiers at once.
REUTERS GT BD0911