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Six Europeans try to kidnap 103 African children

Six French citizens accused of kidnapping after they endeavoured to transport 103 children to Europe from Africa, asserting they were Darfur orphans.

The case threatens to impede aid efforts helping hundreds of thousands of Darfur refugees as it is likely to intensify already deep local suspicions about the goodwill of humanitarian workers.

Seventeen Europeans have been detained since Thursday after authorities scotched an attempt by a French group calling itself Zoe's Ark to fly the African children to Europe, where the group said it intended to place them 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," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani told reporters in Paris on Tuesday.

If convicted, the six French nationals face up to 20 years in Chadian prison with hard labor, said Interior Minister Ahmat Bachir.

Three French journalists traveling with the Zoe's Ark members and a seven-member flight crew were charged with complicity in the alleged crime, Justice Minister Pahimi Padacket Albert said.

Two of the journalists were covering the operation and a third was apparently present for personal reasons, according to the media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders. A Belgian pilot is also under detention, but hasn't been charged with any crime.

Far more is at stake than the fates of the accused French nationals.

More than 300,000 Darfur refugees are living in camps along the Sudanese border, having fled four years of conflict that has left more than 200,000 people dead and 2.5 million displaced from their homes. The terrain along the edge of the Sahara Desert where the Darfur refugees are squatting is among the remotest and least hospitable anywhere.

Aid groups operate in Chad at the pleasure of the government of President Idriss Deby, who expressed outrage at the group's activities in his country and may crack down on humanitarian efforts as a result of the alleged kidnapping.

Deby was "shocked by the acts of Zoe's Ark, which is trafficking children under cover of humanitarian assistance," according to a statement posted on the government's Web site.

The European Union is also aiming to deploy 3,000 peacekeepers to help protect refugees in Chad and nearby Central African Republic, where rebel elements operate and banditry is rife.

However, Chad has assured France that the debacle will not affect that plan, a French official said Monday.

The Zoe's Ark affair has been a major embarrassment for France, which was Chad's colonial master till 1960, and has long and deep ties in the volatile region. New President Nicolas Sarkozy has said he wants to move beyond France's historical role in Africa, which saw successive administrations cozying up to dictators in African countries where France had big business interests.

French Prime Minister Francois Fillon on Tuesday called the group "condemnable" and expressed hope that the case didn't discredit other non-governmental organizations doing "remarkable work" in Chad and Darfur "and which now are suffering suspicion and violence."

Zoe's Ark was founded in 2005 by volunteer fireman Eric Breteau who said it was named after a girl orphaned by the Dec. 2004 Asian tsunami. The group, registered as a non-governmental organization with the French authorities, sought to aid children affected by the tsunami, and brought one boy to France for an operation.

According to their Web site, the group announced in April an operation for "evacuating orphans from Darfur." The group launched an appeal for support by host families and funding through Internet forums.

Established French aid and adoption agencies raised questions about how the group could legally and feasibly organize adoption of children from Darfur, and alerted French judicial authorities to their questions about the group, according to French newspaper reports.

The French Foreign Ministry in August warned families to be careful about involvement in the group's operation, given the sensitivity of the situation in and around Darfur and the legal questions around international adoption.

Still, some 300 families reportedly signed up to adopt or foster children, and many were waiting at a French airport last week for the children when they heard members of the group had been arrested. Media reports said some of the children wore phony bandages to make them look injured and in need of help.

French news reports have said the group raised and spent Ђ550,000 for the thwarted operation, including the costs of chartering the airplane. The group's lawyers reject accusations they were pedophiles or organ traffickers, Christophe Letien, spokesman for the charity, insisted its intentions were merely humanitarian.

"The team is made up of firefighters, doctors andjournalists," 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."

Gilbert Collard, a lawyer for the group, said the charges against his clients were less severe than he had feared, given harsh comments by Deby.

"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."

French Justice Minister Rachida Dati said France and Chad had a judicial agreement that would enable the African country to return the French nationals home to face trial, but added that Chad had not yet chosen to do so.

Andreani, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, said Tuesday that France was sending a doctor and legal adviser to meet with the group's detained members.

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