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Europeans kidnapping case moves to capital

The Supreme Court resolved to transfer the case of Europeans accused of the kidnapping of African children from a remote town to the capital.

The 17 detained since last week by Chadian authorities, including six French citizens who were charged with kidnapping, would be transferred from Abeche to N'djamena in the coming days, although it wasn't known precisely when, a judicial official said on condition of anonymity because the decision had yet to be publicly announced.

A charity calling itself Zoe's Ark was stopped last week from flying the children from Chad to Europe, where the group said it intended to place them with host families. The group says its intentions were purely humanitarian and that it had conducted investigations over several weeks to determine the children it was taking were orphans.

The French Foreign Ministry and others have cast doubt on the claims by Zoe's Ark that the children were orphans from Darfur, where fighting since 2003 has forced thousands to flee to Chad and led directly or indirectly to the deaths of more than 200,000 people. Aid workers who interviewed the children Zoe's Ark had tried to fly out said Thursday most of them had been living with adults they considered their parents and came from villages on the Chadian-Sudanese border region.

In addition to the six accused of kidnapping, Chadian authorities detained French journalists who had accompanied the Zoe's Ark team and the crew of the plane they planned to use to take the children to France. The crew included Spaniards and a Belgian pilot.

Late Thursday, President Idriss Deby said on state television that he hoped journalists and the flight crew would be freed soon.

Chad's Communications Minister Hourmadji Moussa Doumgor told RTL radio the journalists had assignment letters from Zoe's Ark and that a cameraman was also listed as a "health assistant."

"Put yourself in our shoes, put yourselves in the shoes of the judicial system: `Maybe they are members of this association,"' Doumgor said.

Chadian lawyer Jean-Bernard Padare, who represents the journalists in Chad, said: "That doesn't change the fact that they came to do their job ... I am waiting for someone to show me that these journalists were members of Zoe's Ark. The journalist came to cover he was not coming as an adventurer. He came as part of his profession."

French Human Rights Minister Rama Yade was meeting Friday with relatives of the journalists held in Chad, and she was expected to meet with relatives of Zoe's Ark members later in the day.

Also Friday, France said it would for the time being decline an offer by Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi to help resolve the case, saying it did not believe it was necessary.

David Martinon, a spokesman for French President Nicolas Sarkozy, said France "welcomed the proposal by Mr. Gadhafi with satisfaction," but that Sarkozy and Chad's Deby are in direct talks. They have spoken about the crisis three times in the last several days.

Ties between France and Libya are at their best in years, and Sarkozy recently made an official visit to Tripoli.

"We are trying first to get the journalists and the air crew out that's our first priority," Martinon added.

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