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Chad frees some Europeans as Sarkozy jets in

Written by: Staff

N'DJAMENA, Nov 4 (Reuters) Chad released three French journalists and four Spanish flight attendants today, a lawyer for one of the journalists said shortly after French President Nicolas Sarkozy arrived to discuss their fate.

They were among 16 French and Spanish nationals arrested 10 days ago as they tried to fly 103 African children to Europe.

''They are happy, they are free,'' Jean-Bernard Padare, a Chadian lawyer, told Reuters by phone.

The seven were collecting their belongings from the main law courts in the capital N'Djamena, where they were questioned on Saturday for more than 12 hours by an investigating magistrate.

The Europeans were arrested in the eastern Chadian town of Abeche, near the border with Sudan's war-torn Darfur region, as they sought to fly out the children aged between 1 and 10 years.

Chad accused the group of trying to abduct the children but the French group organising their departure said they were war orphans who were being placed in homes in Europe.

Sarkozy flew to N'Djamena today to meet President Idriss Deby to discuss the incident.

Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Angel Moratinos told reporters in Spain that Sarkozy would ''transport the freed Spanish women as soon as possible in the first instance to Paris. We will send a plane so that they can immediately be transferred and be reunited with their families.'' ABDUCTION AND FRAUD Six members of a French group called Zoe's Ark remained in custody facing charges of child abduction and fraud. The three members of the Spanish air crew still detained face charges of being accessories to the crimes.

Zoe's Ark has said that it intended to place orphans from Darfur with European families for foster care and that it had the right to do so under international law.

Sarkozy had appealed to Deby to free the French journalists and urged a mutually satisfactory solution ''so that no one loses face''.

Sarkozy's spokesman said the president's meeting with Deby would focus on consular protection of the French nationals and on judicial cooperation between France and Chad.

UN and Chadian officials say most of the infants had come from families with at least one parent living on the violent Chad-Sudan border, contradicting the ''war orphans'' description of the children given by Zoe's Ark.

The affair is an embarrassment for former colonial ruler France, which is an ally of Chad and has troops and aircraft stationed in the landlocked country.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon asked Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and Defence Minister Herve Morin yesterday to launch investigations into the case.

France's opposition leader has called for any trial to be held in France.

''We must not let our nationals, whatever their responsibility, become an instrument of pressure used by the Chadian regime,'' Francois Hollande, the head of France's opposition Socialist party, told reporters in western France.


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