November 23, 2007 / 5:14 PM / 12 years ago

Air firm was told U.N. and France backed Zoe's Ark: source

N’DJAMENA (Reuters) - The Spanish air charter company hired by a French group to fly 103 children out of Chad was told the foiled flight was supported by the United Nations and the French president’s wife, a legal source said on Friday.

Hundreds of students protest in the streets of N'Djamena November 10, 2007 to demand that seven Europeans freed at the weekend return to face trial over an attempt to fly 103 African children to live in Europe. The sign on the right reads "Judge the guilty in Chad". REUTERS /Luc Gnago

The Catalan charter company, Girjet, offered its services after receiving emails indicating the abortive operation was being organized by the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR and also had the blessing of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s wife, Cecilia, the source, who asked not to be named, said.

France’s government and the UNHCR have denied involvement in last month’s attempt by the French humanitarian activist group Zoe’s Ark to fly the African children aged 1-10 out of Chad to Europe in a Boeing 757 airliner chartered from Girjet.

Six Zoe’s Ark members were arrested in Chad on October 25 and face trial on charges of abducting children and fraud. The seven-member Spanish Girjet crew arrested with them were later released, as were three French journalists and a Belgian pilot.

The emails were sent in English to Girjet in October by a Luxembourg-based air freight hire company, Cargo Leasing S.A., which was acting on behalf of Zoe’s Ark, the legal source, who is involved in the case in N’Djamena, told Reuters.

“Please advise price quote for the transportation of 180 passengers of the UNHCR organization from ABECHE (TCHAD) to MARSEILLE,” read one email, a copy of which was seen by Reuters.

Another said: “Really need your full cooperation in that business which is considered as Humanitarian flight on behalf of a French committee headed and supported by Mme Cecilia S......”.

“It’s clear they wanted to give the impression that the French Presidency was aware of the Zoe’s Ark mission,” the legal source told Reuters.

Sarkozy’s spokesman has already denied French media reports last month which quoted the Belgian pilot arrested, who was later freed, as saying that the leaders of Zoe’s Ark told him they had the support of the Elysee Palace.

“I formally reject the information according to which the organization Zoe’s Ark claims the support of the Elysee and Cecilia Sarkozy,” the French presidential spokesman, David Martinon, said on October 26. “It’s totally false,” he added.

France has strongly condemned the Zoe’s Ark operation but the case has strained relations with its former colony Chad ahead of the planned deployment of a European Union peacekeeping force in the violent east of the landlocked African country.

FAKE BANDAGES

UNHCR has also denied having any formal relationship with the Zoe’s Ark group, but it said it gave the organization some material assistance in east Chad, acting “in good faith”.

The group, which operated in eastern Chad under the name Children Rescue, had said it planned to fly orphans from Sudan’s war-torn Darfur region to Europe for fostering by families.

U.N. officials who questioned the children said most were not orphans and came from villages on the Chad-Sudan border. Some parents have testified the Zoe’s Ark members offered schooling in east Chad to persuade them to part with their children — but that they never mentioned flying them to France.

Another email sent to Girjet said the passengers of the plane would be Chadian residents requiring “special surgical and medical attention”. But U.N. officials said the children were found with fake bandages on their heads and bodies and that most of them were in good health.

In the email exchanges, the price for the Girjet charter flight was quoted at 115,000 euros ($170,000).

The emails also show that both Girjet headquarters and the pilot in charge were to have received various documents, including a manifest signed “by French doctors authorizing these children to travel”, and an “authorization from ABECHE authorities to evacuate these children”, among others.

But it was not clear whether these documents were delivered, as the children and their Zoe’s Ark guardians were stopped on October 25 while on their way to Abeche airport in eastern Chad to take the Girjet flight.

Additional reporting by Crispian Balmer in Paris, Editing by Pascal Fletcher

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