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Agencies: Most children in adoption dispute not Sudanese orphans

  • Story Highlights
  • NEW: Chadian president wants journalists, flight crew released
  • Red Cross, UNICEF, UNHCR interview children that charity tried to fly out of Chad
  • Most are not from Sudan and have families, agencies say
  • Six members of Zoe's Ark, 11 others under arrest in Chad
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ABECHE, Chad (CNN) -- Most of the 103 children that a French charity attempted to take to France from Chad for adoption are neither Sudanese nor orphans, three international aid agencies reported on Thursday.

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Hundreds of women protest child trafficking and shout anti-French slogans Wednesday in Abeche, Chad.

Six members of Zoe's Ark were arrested last week as they tried to put the children on a plane to France, where the charity said host families were waiting to take the children in.

Three French journalists, a seven-member Spanish flight crew and one Belgian were also arrested. Representatives of the journalists and flight crew said they were unaware of problems with Zoe's Ark and thought they were on a humanitarian mission.

Chadian President Idriss Deby hopes the journalists and the flight crew will be freed, his chief of staff, Mahamat Hissene, said Thursday.

The president would legally be able to intervene in the case if it is transferred from a judge in the eastern city of Abeche, where the children were taken, to a judge in N'Djamena, the capital, Hissene said.

The transfer will take place Monday, according to media reports.

The International Red Cross Committee, the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and UNICEF said most of the children were living with their families before Zoe's Ark took them.

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The charity said the children were Sudanese orphans that it was trying to rescue from a war-torn nation.

The agencies said most of the children also probably come from Chadian villages along Chad's border with Sudan.

The children have been living in an orphanage in Abeche while authorities and aid agencies try to determine their identities. Video Watch a report on whether the children are orphans »

Chadian authorities immediately accused the charity of kidnapping the children and concealing their identities. Chad's interior minister said Zoe's Ark dressed the children in bandages and fake intravenous drips to make them look like refugees who needed medical help.

The charity workers and journalists have been charged with kidnapping and extortion and could face 20 years of hard labor if convicted. The Spaniards and Belgian are charged with complicity.

The Spanish flight crew is innocent and should be released, a company executive said Thursday.

"We thought we were doing a humanitarian transport," said Antoni Cajal, sales director of Spain's Gir Jet charter firm.

"If an NGO [nongovernmental organization] has done something wrong, it's impossible for us to know."

Spain's Foreign Ministry has publicly expressed its disagreement with the charges and has dispatched top diplomats to Chad to try to win the group's release.

Over the weekend, the captain appealed urgently to be rescued, fearing the crew could be harmed or killed, Cajal said.

But the four women and three men are in good condition in custody, Cajal said, based on his conversations with a Spanish consular official who came from Cameroon to Chad and has been able to visit them.

The detention is the first problem of its kind for the company, which hopes government negotiations can resolve the issue, Cajal said.

On its Web site, Zoe's Ark describes itself as a nonprofit organization based in Paris that sends teams of physicians, nurses, firefighters and other specialists to care for children in war zones and place them with families in France, who then apply for asylum on their behalf.

The Red Cross, UNHCR and UNICEF said the 21 girls and 82 boys range in age from about 1 year to about 10, and they are healthy.

The agencies said they have been interviewing the children individually to determine their backgrounds.

"So far, the interviews carried out with the children -- some of whom could not provide any information due to their young age -- led to the preliminary conclusion that probably 85 come from Chadian villages near the cities of Adre and Tine along the Chadian-Sudanese border," the agencies said.

"Ninety-one children said they had been living with their family, consisting of at least one adult they considered to be their parent," the agencies said, adding that interviews with the remaining 12 children were ongoing.

The agencies called their investigation painstaking and challenging because of the number of children, their youth and the situation in the region.

Other French charities earlier had questioned whether Zoe's Ark could legally arrange adoption of children from Darfur, and contacted French authorities, according to French newspapers and The Associated Press.

French authorities have reacted angrily to the Zoe's Ark trip, calling the group's actions "illegal and irresponsible."

The French Foreign Ministry has said the dispute will not affect France's participation in a European peacekeeping force due to be deployed along the border between Chad and Sudan.

In response to the dispute in Chad, the Republic of Congo said late Wednesday it was suspending all international adoptions, The Associated Press reported.

Reporters Without Borders said it will work for the release of the three journalists arrested in Chad.

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The organization said photographers Marc Garmirian of the Capa news agency and Jean-Daniel Guillou of the Synchro X agency were on assignment for their news organizations and were not part of the charity's efforts.

The third journalist, Marie-Agnes Peleran of the TV station France 3 Miditerranee, was traveling with the group in a personal capacity, though she carried a camera from her station, Reporters Without Borders said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Al Goodman contributed to this report.

Copyright 2007 CNN. All rights reserved.This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Associated Press contributed to this report.

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