UN says Zoe's Ark case hampering its work in Chad

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N'DJAMENA, Nov 13 (Reuters) The deputy head of the UN refugee agency said today a French group's attempt to fly African children to Europe was ''disgusting'' and had created a climate of suspicion hampering UN operations.

U.N. Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees Craig Johnstone said he expected tensions with the local population in violence-torn eastern Chad would calm quickly and should not interfere with the deployment of a European peacekeeping force.

Six members of the French organisation Zoe's Ark remain in custody in Chad on charges of fraud and abduction after they were detained on Oct 25 in the eastern town of Abeche trying to transport 103 children to Europe in an operation Chad authorities said was illegal.

''What they did was really disgusting,'' Johnstone told a news conference in the Chadian capital N'Djamena. ''For the moment, there is certainly a negative impact because the local population has become very suspicious.

''But I think in the long term the situation will calm down ... and I think things will improve fairly soon.'' U.N. agencies in eastern Chad are struggling to cope with a humanitarian crisis caused by the spillover from the neighbouring Darfur region of Sudan, where international experts estimate a 4-1/2 year conflict has killed some 200,000 people and driven 2.5 million from their homes.

A 4,000-strong EU peacekeeping force is due to deploy in the coming weeks in eastern Chad to protect the civilian population, amid growing ethnic tensions between the Arab and Black African population.

Johnstone said more money was needed to support the UNHCR's operations in both Chad and Sudan, particularly for the internally displaced.

The former US diplomat, appointed to his post in April, said the members of Zoe's Ark had duped both the Chadian government and United Nations officials by claiming they were flying sick and destitute orphans from Darfur for foster care in Europe.

UN officials have subsequently said that almost all of the children were from Chad, had been living with at least one of their parents, and were in good health.

Relatives of the children, who were aged between 1 and 10, told reporters in Abeche that the Zoe's Ark workers told them they were taking the infants for schooling and they would be back in a week. Some of the children said they had been lured from their homes with sweets.

Seven Spanish air crew, three French journalists and a Belgian pilot who were arrested with the aid workers have been released by Chadian authorities, who said they could not be linked to the alleged fraud and abductions.

Reuters RC VP0245

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