November 5, 2007 / 1:55 PM / 10 years ago

Journalist freed by Chad criticizes aid workers

PARIS (Reuters) - A French journalist arrested with members of the Zoe’s Ark group in Chad as they tried to fly 103 African children to Europe said on Monday they had displayed “dramatic amateurishness” and lied about their plans.

Marc Garmirian, one of three French reporters released on Sunday, interviewed members of the group during the operation and filmed them putting bandages on children to make them seem injured before their planned flight to France.

“I realized rather quickly that in what you could call the investigation, or the interviews they conducted with the children or the people who brought them the children, they displayed a dramatic amateurishness,” he told TF1 television.

Six of the 10 Europeans still in custody are members of the organization ‘Zoe’s Ark’, which has said it intended to place orphans from Darfur with European families for foster care and that it had the right to do so under international law.

But U.N. and Chadian officials say most of the 103 children, who are between 1 and 10 years old, have at least one living parent and came from the violent Chad-Sudan border area.

Garmirian’s employer, French news agency CAPA, released on Sunday television footage that showed members of Zoe’s Ark putting bandages on children and pouring dark liquid on them to make it seem as though they were injured.

The head of Zoe’s Ark, Eric Breteau, said in the footage that he knew he might be arrested over the operation.

“If I am thrown in prison for saving children from Darfur ... I think that after all I would be proud to go to prison for that,” Breteau said.

Garmirian, who left Chad on President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plane along with the two other reporters and four Spanish flight attendants, said Zoe’s Ark workers failed to tell Chadians they dealt with that they planned to take the children to France.

Children, who French group Zoe's Ark tried to fly to Europe, cry in an orphanage in the Chadian city of Abeche November 5, 2007. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah

“They lied to all the Chadians,” he told Reuters Television.

“According to them it was an essential condition of the operation’s success. They worked for a month and a half with around 100 people -- accountants, nannies who looked after the children, cooks, drivers -- to all these people their message was ‘We are opening an orphanage in Abeche,” Garmirian said.

“LUNATICS, FANATICS”

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Two members of Zoe’s Ark -- Breteau and Emilie Lelouch -- remained convinced that they had acted legally, he said.

“You could say that they are lunatics, fanatics. In any case, up until the moment I left the prison, Emilie Lelouch and Eric Breteau remained convinced that their mission was legitimate,” he told Europe 1 radio in a separate interview.

Members of Zoe’s Ark and the three remaining Spanish air crew appeared in court in Chad’s capital N‘Djamena on Monday.

A crowd of journalists outside could see members of the group through the open windows of an empty court room, lying down, pacing the room, smoking and drinking water as they waited their turn to appear before a judge in a different chamber.

“People have been sensationalizing this affair, pronouncing they are guilty even before the judge has tried them,” said Abdou Lamian, a lawyer for Zoe’s Ark.

Jean-Bernard Padare, a Chadian lawyer defending the Spanish detainees, told Reuters television he would file a request on Tuesday for their provisional release.

“There is no reason to keep them in detention,” he said.

Additional reporting by Stephanie Hancock and Clothaire Achi in N'Djamena, Antony Paone in Paris; Editing by Ralph Boulton

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