N’DJAMENA (Reuters) - Chadian President Idriss Deby vowed on Friday that nine French nationals detained for trying to smuggle out African children to live with European families would pay for their “horrible” crime.
Chadian police arrested the group on Thursday as they were preparing to fly 103 children, aged 3-8 and mainly from Sudan’s conflict-torn Darfur region, out of the eastern Chadian city of Abeche on a French charter plane.
“It is a horrible act which I say is a crime. I strongly condemn it,” Deby told reporters on Friday during a visit to a social centre in Abeche where the children are being cared for.
“All administrative and judicial steps will be taken so that these people and their accomplices pay for their actions. The Chadian and Sudanese authorities must from now on put in place control systems so this never happens again,” he said.
The nine detained included the head of a group called Zoe’s Ark, which said earlier this year it hoped to bring orphans from Darfur to France for adoption.
Chad’s interior minister, Ahmat Mahamat Bachir, said on Thursday that some of the 103 children were Chadian, not all were orphans and the operation had no official authorisation.
U.N. Children’s Fund UNICEF was caring for the children on Friday as it tried to establish who they were.
“When the children came out of the plane, many had bandages on their legs and arms and heads, but later when they were taken off, there was nothing (no injuries) there,” Jean-Francois Basse, UNICEF senior protection officer for Chad, told Reuters.
“Chadian legislation is very clear and it was not respected. What they did was completely illegal ... It was the work of an amateur,” he said.
The apparent smuggling bid was condemned by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose spokesman said the Paris prosecutor’s office had opened an inquiry on Wednesday into “illegal exercise of intermediary activities with the aim of adoption”.
FOREIGN MINISTRY WARNING
The French Foreign Ministry issued a warning about Zoe’s Ark in August, saying there was no guarantee the children were helpless orphans and casting doubt on the project’s legality.
A French diplomat said around 300 families in France and Belgium had paid 2,800 to 6,000 euros (2,000-4,200 pounds) per child to have them flown to an airport in Vatry, east of Paris, where families hoping to welcome them waited all night in vain.
Since the Foreign Ministry’s warning, Zoe’s Ark had stopped saying it aimed to have the children adopted, the diplomat said.
The organisation’s Web site www.archedezoe.fr continues to say its plans to bring children from Darfur to Europe are justified by the Geneva Convention and international law.
“Everything was done with the agreement of the French government,” Agathe Deregnancourt of the “Group of families for the orphans of Darfur”, an umbrella organisation which includes Zoe’s Ark, said on French television channel BFM TV.
“It’s not a question of buying or adopting ... families were volunteering to welcome these children into their homes,” she said.
Rama Yade, France’s secretary of state for foreign affairs and human rights, was contacted three months ago by Zoe’s Ark, and had warned other government agencies of the “doubtful” nature of the plan, Sarkozy’s office said.
“Taking children away like this is, from my point of view, illegal and irresponsible,” Yade was quoted as saying in an interview published in Friday’s Le Parisien newspaper.