Chad offered assurances Wednesday that the alleged kidnapping of 103 African children from the remote borderlands with Sudan would not hinder humanitarian efforts aimed at helping hundreds of thousands of refugees in the region.
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.
Six French citizens were charged with kidnapping, raising concerns that the government could restrict the work of humanitarian organizations.
But Chad said humanitarian efforts would continue unimpeded, although Chad's President Idriss Deby said he was shocked at the group's activities, according to a statement posted on the government's Web site.
"Anyone not implicated in this affair ... and who work in other humanitarian assistance organizations, need not concern themselves with, nor be concerned by, those who would substitute themselves for justice to fill their empty accounts," said a statement attributed to Communications Minister Hourmadji Moussa Doumgor and read on national radio Wednesday.
He reiterated that the case would have no bearing on a European Union plan to deploy 3,000 peacekeepers to protect refugees in strife torn regions of Chad and neighboring Central African Republic.
The French Foreign Ministry and others have cast doubt on the claims by the little-known group that the children are Darfur orphans, suggesting many are from Chad and their parents are still alive.
If convicted, the six French nationals, who were charged Monday, face up to 20 years in Chadian prison with hard labor.
Three French journalists traveling with the Zoe's Ark members and a seven-member flight crew were charged with complicity in the alleged crime. A Belgian pilot is also under detention, but hasn't been charged.
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.
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon on Tuesday criticized the group 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 firefighter Eric Breteau.