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French Charity Accused of African Kidnapping Plot

Gilbert Collard, lawyer for Zoe's Ark, talks to the media after six people associated with the French charity were charged with kidnapping.
Anne-Christine Poujoulat
Gilbert Collard, lawyer for Zoe's Ark, talks to the media after six people associated with the French charity were charged with kidnapping.

Six people associated with a French charity have been charged with kidnapping after attempting to take 103 African children out of Chad and place them with families in Europe, authorities said Tuesday.

Authorities in Chad detained 17 people — including charity volunteers, a flight crew and several journalists — after the charity L'Arche de Zoe, or Zoe's Ark, tried to put the children on a plane last week.

Chad's President Idriss Deby has denounced the plan as a "straightforward kidnapping" and promised punishment for those involved. French authorities also have condemned the charity's plans.


Officials with the charity said it had arranged French host families for the children to save them from possible death in Sudan's western Darfur region. More than four years of conflict there has left more than 200,000 people dead and 2.5 million displaced — many to eastern Chad.

In France, police searched the charity's offices and the apartment of its founder as part of an inquiry into whether the group broke adoption laws, police officials said. The group initially promised some families that they could adopt — not merely host — children from Darfur, French officials have said.

Chad's Interior Minister Ahmat Bachir said if the defendants are found guilty, they would face up to 20 years in prison with hard labor.

A judge in the eastern city of Abeche also agreed late Monday to allow prosecution charges of complicity against three French journalists, Justice Minister Pahimi Padacket Albert said. Two of the journalists were covering the operation and a third was reportedly present for personal reasons, according to the media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders.

A seven-person flight crew also would be charged with complicity, Albert told The Associated Press. The accused would be flown this week to the capital N'Djamena.


Gilbert Collard, a lawyer for the group, said they will fight the charges. "Now we are going to work with Chadian lawyers and contest all the elements against them, one by one," he said. "We are entering difficult territory, but one that is now clearly defined."

Seven Spanish citizens who work for a Barcelona-based charter airline also were detained in the case, as was a pilot from Belgium, the two countries said. The Chad justice minister made no mention of the Belgian citizen, whose legal status in the country was not known.

UNICEF's representative in Chad, Mariam Coulibaly Ndiaye, said authorities were interviewing the children Monday to learn more about their origins and whether they were truly orphans.

Chad has assured France that a debacle will not affect plans to deploy European Union peacekeepers there to protect refugees from neighboring Darfur, a French official said Monday.

French diplomats said they had warned Zoe's Ark for months not to go through with its plans. Christophe Letien, spokesman for the charity, insisted its intentions were merely humanitarian.

"The team is made up of firemen, doctors and journalists," he said at a news conference. "It's unimaginable that doubts are being cast on these people of good faith, who volunteered to save children from Darfur."

From NPR reports and The Associated Press

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