PARIS, France (AP) -- An attempt by a group of French charity workers to spirit away more than 100 children they claimed were orphans from the Darfur crisis could have seriously damaged relief efforts in the region, a senior aid official told CNN Monday.
Nine French nationals are among a group of 16 still being held by authorities in neighboring Chad, after they were arrested trying to put the children on a plane to France last Thursday.
Seven crew members of a Spanish charter company and a Belgian pilot were also detained, according to French television reports.
A spokesman for French President Nicolas Sarkozy condemned the actions of the charity workers, which Chadian President Idriss Deby characterized as a case of "straightforward kidnapping."
The spokesman told CNN the attempt to remove the children was both "illegal and unacceptable." He said Sarkozy had spoken on the phone with Deby and it is now a matter for the Chad authorities.
Of the French nationals, six of those detained are thought to work for the charity and three are journalists.
The nationalities of the 103 young children involved in the case are unclear, although they are thought to range in age from 1 to 12, according the French government spokesman.
The "rescue" attempt was organized by L'Arche de Zoe (Zoe's Ark), a Paris-based aid organization.
A senior aid official working in Chad said the children are now being cared for in the eastern Chadian city of Abeche, where they were being interviewed to establish where they came from.
The aid official, who did not wish to be named, said he was aware of that Zoe's Ark was operating in the country.
"We knew they were here, but they'd never attempted to liaise with the international NGOs. The implications of what they've done are very serious," he said. "You work for a long time to build up trust and win over local communities and actions like this can completely wreck that hard work. This is profoundly reckless and disrespectful."
On its Web site, Zoe's Ark claims it uses teams composed of doctors, nurses, firefighters and other specialists to take children orphaned in Darfur to host 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 confirmed it knew of the charity's plans months in advance, but was powerless to stop them.
"You cannot prevent people from traveling from one country to another. These people were warned but didn't listen," a French government spokesman told CNN.
Two of the three journalists arrested along with the charity workers were reporting on the evacuation attempt, according to Reporters Without Borders, the journalism watchdog. The other French journalist was there for personal reasons, the watchdog said.
Jean Baptiste Damestoy, from Reporters Without Borders, told CNN the journalists should be freed immediately. "They were reporting a story and have committed no crime," he said. E-mail to a friend
|Most Viewed||Most Emailed||Top Searches|