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Interpreters: Detained Americans met with cop, seeking kids' passage

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Americans taking Haitian kids?
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Interpreter: Policeman offered to help the Americans take the children out of Haiti
  • Ten Americans were arrested after trying to take children into Dominican Republic
  • Group acknowledged children did not have passports to leave country
  • Haitian authorities say they're interviewing police officer

Port-au-Prince, Haiti (CNN) -- Ten Americans accused of trying illegally to take 33 children from Haiti had met with a Haitian police officer and a Dominican official the week before being stopped at the border, interpreters who worked with the group said Wednesday.

One interpreter said the officer offered to help the Americans with the paperwork required take the children out of the country.

The Americans -- five men and five women, some of whom are members of Central Valley Baptist Church in Meridian, Idaho --were arrested in Haiti after being turned back from the Dominican Republic border on Friday night.

A Haitian lawyer representing the Americans told reporters Wednesday that the arrests were illegal and that their clients had only been trying to help.

The Americans, who were interviewed Wednesday by Judge Isai Jean Louis, are to appear Thursday before the attorney general, who is handling the case, lawyer Edwin Coq said.

Around noon Wednesday, Haitian authorities took away for questioning a Haitian police officer who works at the Dominican Embassy, officials said.

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They said he would be asked whether he provided illegal paperwork to the Americans to facilitate their efforts to remove the children from the country.

Three interpreters who had translated for the Americans told CNN that the Americans met last week at least twice with the officer -- at the embassy and consulate.

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The Americans have said they had the permit they thought they needed from the Dominican authorities, but the Dominican consul general told CNN that that was not the case.

Carlos Castillo said he met Friday with Laura Silsby, the leader of the group. He said he told her the documentation was not in order and warned her that, if she were to attempt the trip, she could be accused of child trafficking.

"The Haitian authorities contacted me, they called me, and they told me that she was telling them she had the authorization from the Dominican authorities to cross the border, which was a lie," Castillo said.

CNN's Karl Penhaul attempted to get comment from the jailed Americans in Haiti's capital, but they would not discuss the matter, responding to his questions by singing "Amazing Grace" and praying.

The group, New Life Children's Refuge, said it was "rescuing" abandoned children by moving them to the Dominican Republic, where it was building an orphanage. The group's effort came after an earthquake last month killed tens of thousands in Haiti.

The U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince said Sunday that the Americans had been detained for "alleged violations of Haitian laws related to immigration."

SOS Children's Villages, where Haitian authorities took the 33 children after the Americans' arrests, said at least 20 of the kids aren't orphans and many others have relatives such as aunts and uncles.

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Several residents of the village of Calebasse, more than an hour from Port-au-Prince, told CNN this week they had voluntarily handed over their children to Silsby.

The parents said Silsby told them she would give their children a better life and promised that they could see them whenever they wanted.

Told Monday that many of the children had living parents, Silsby said during a jailhouse interview, "I did not know that."

She added, "In our hearts, our intention was to help children that had been orphaned or abandoned by their parents."

But the interpreters said they translated conversations between Silsby and the parents in Calebasse and that Silsby must have been aware of the children's status.

Jean Sainvil, a pastor who helped find children from a camp in the Delmas neighborhood of the capital, told CNN that the Americans told him they were seeking orphans.

Sainvil said he rounded up 20 children and handed them to the Americans on Thursday, though the translators put the number he helped at 13.

Some of those who were receptive to his call apparently included parents. "One of them turned five children over," he said. "Mother came out with children, said 'You can have them all,' she doesn't have a home, she is hopeless."

He said no money changed hands.

One interpreter said representatives of the group met with a Haitian police officer on January 26. The officer told Silsby that her group couldn't gather Haitian children as they were doing, but then offered his help, the interpreter said.

"They met a police guy and he told them that he could help, and he was helping them with some paper," interpreter Steve Adrien said. "We did not meet him in a police station, but in the street in a car."

The Americans met again with the man in Port-au-Prince on Thursday, near the Dominican Embassy, the translator said.

"He was helping Laura [Silsby] to get in touch with the ambassador in the Dominican Embassy," said Isaac Adrien, Steve's brother and another of the interpreters.

He said the group came away from the meeting with a document from the embassy that the Americans took with them to the border Friday.

Though the group said it planned to start an orphanage in the Dominican Republic, it has no experience running an orphanage, has not registered as an international adoption agency and has not filed with the U.S. government as a nonprofit.

Church pastor Clint Henry was unfazed. "I believe that the kind of knowledge that it takes to begin an organization that works that way was in place," he told CNN. "The kind of employees that it takes to successfully run an orphanage, those were going to be hired."

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the matter "unfortunate."

"We know how to do this in the right way and it was unfortunate that, whatever the motivation, that this group of Americans took matters into their own hands," she said, adding that U.S. authorities were in discussions with the Haitian government "about the appropriate disposal of their cases."

Government approval is needed for any Haitian child to leave the country, and the group acknowledged that the children have no passports.

The number of Haitian orphans taken to the United States after the earthquake -- those whose approval and paperwork had been in the bureaucratic pipeline at the time of the disaster -- is 578, with 44 others awaiting transportation, U.S. State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said.

CNN's Dan Simon in Meridian, Idaho; Karl Penhaul in Port-au-Prince, Haiti; and Jill Dougherty in Washington contributed to this report.

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