N’DJAMENA, Chad – Chad charged six French citizens with kidnapping after they tried to fly out 103 African children from the remote border region with Sudan, bandaging them up to look injured and claiming they were Darfur orphans in need of rescue.
The case threatens to impede aid efforts for hundreds of thousands of Darfur refugees by intensifying already deep local suspicions about the motives of humanitarian workers.
Seventeen Europeans have been detained since Thursday, when authorities blocked an attempt by a French group calling itself L’Arche de Zoe – Zoe’s Ark – to fly the African children to Europe, where they were to be placed with host families.
The French Foreign Ministry and others have cast doubt on the claims by the little-known group that the children are Darfur orphans.
“According to initial information … there seem to be many Chadian children and even many who are not orphans,” French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani said Tuesday in Paris.
If convicted, the French suspects, who were charged late Monday, face up to 20 years hard labor in a Chadian prison, said Chad’s interior minister, Ahmat Bachir.
Three French journalists traveling with the group and seven Spanish citizens who worked for the Barcelona-based charter airline hired to fly the children out also were detained, as was a pilot from Belgium. The journalists and the Spaniards were charged with complicity, Justice Minister Pahimi Padacket Albert said.
Two of the journalists were covering the operation and a third was present for personal reasons, according to the media watchdog Reporters Without Borders.
Far more is at stake than the suspects’ fates.
More than 300,000 Darfur refugees are living in camps along the Sudanese border after fleeing four years of conflict that has left more than 200,000 people dead and driven 2.5 million from their homes.
Aid groups operate in Chad with permission from the government of President Idriss Deby, who has expressed outrage at the group’s activities and may crack down on humanitarian efforts as a result.
A statement posted on the government’s Web site said Deby was “shocked by the acts of Zoe’s Ark, which is trafficking children under cover of humanitarian assistance.”
The allegations are a major embarrassment for France, which was Chad’s colonial master until 1960 and has deep ties to the volatile region.