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Aid group faces kidnapping charges

  • Story Highlights
  • Authorities in Chad charge nine French nationals with kidnapping
  • Three French journalists are among those charged
  • The "rescue mission" was organized by L'Arche de Zoe (Zoe's Ark)
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PARIS, France (CNN) -- Authorities in Chad have charged nine French nationals with kidnapping after they attempted to fly out of Chad with more than 100 children the group claimed were orphans from Sudan.

The charges were confirmed by Leonard Vincent, who heads the Africa desk at Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. Three French journalists are among those charged.

In addition, Vincent said, seven crew members of a Spanish charter company were charged with complicity.

The 16 were being held in the eastern Chadian city of Abeche and were expected to be transferred to the capital, N'Djamena, later in the week, Vincent said.

The group was arrested last week as they tried to put 103 children on a plane to France. The "rescue mission" was organized by L'Arche de Zoe (Zoe's Ark), a Paris-based charity which said the children were orphans from the Darfur crisis and were being taken to foster families in France.

The Chadian government disputed that, and a spokeswoman for the UNHCR said that based on preliminary interviews with the children, they "most probably" are from Chad.

The arrested French nationals include six members of Zoe's Ark and three French journalists, Vincent said. Two of the journalists were on assignment for independent media outlets, while the third was on humanitarian leave from her job, he said. Video Watch aid workers paraded in handcuffs »

"Her editor gave her a camera because she wanted to cover the operation," Vincent said, "but she was also sympathetic to the association as she wanted to host one of the kids."

Vincent said RSF was trying to plead the case of the three journalists, though he acknowledged the woman's case was being treated separately from the other two journalists.

He said the group would be transferred to the capital for security reasons because authorities believe they are in danger in Abeche.

"The population is very angry at them," he said.

The children, meanwhile, were living in an Abeche orphanage while aid groups and government officials try to determine their identities.

A spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Abeche said the children were all very young -- most between 3 and 5, but some as young as 1 -- and that none had any papers or documentation.

The spokeswoman, Annette Rehrl, said the children were all healthy and doing well despite the circumstances.

"Since Friday morning, they have been visited constantly by the education minister, journalists, constantly asking questions," Rehrl said. "They are still under some sort of shock ... but as a matter of fact, they are fine. They sleep, they eat, they start to play."

A spokeswoman for the Red Cross in Geneva said aid groups were providing the children with mattresses, food, and other necessities.

Rehrl said it would take weeks to speak to all of the children and determine their background, but based on information gathered so far, "most probably, the majority of them do come from Chad."

She cautioned that it was a preliminary assessment which also depended on interviews with residents of nearby villages to find out whether they were missing their children.

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On its Web site, Zoe's Ark claims it uses teams of doctors, nurses, firefighters and other specialists to take Darfur orphans to foster families in France. In response to accusations that its activities are illegal and unethical, it says, "The extermination going on in Darfur, isn't that scandalous, illegal, and traumatizing?"

The French government said Monday it knew of the charity's plans months in advance but was powerless to stop them. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About Nicolas SarkozyChadDarfur

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