Chad president makes push to free journalists
N'DJAMENA, Chad - Chad's president called yesterday to free journalists and an air crew detained in connection with a French charity that was trying to fly children it said were orphans from Darfur to Europe.
Seventeen Europeans have been detained by Chadian authorities over the past week, including six French citizens who were charged with kidnapping. Three of the detained are French journalists. Seven Spaniards, including two pilots, are part of the air crew, as well as a Belgian pilot. The journalists and crew are being held without charges.
"I hope that that Chadian justice can very quickly shed light on this affair and that the journalists and the air hostesses and those not involved can be freed without delay," President Idriss Deby said on state television.
Earlier yesterday, humanitarian workers cast new doubt on assertions by the charity, Zoe's Ark, that it was helping Darfur orphans by trying to fly them to Europe, saying most of the children appear to have at least one living parent.
Fallout from the scandal reached across Africa to the Republic of Congo, where officials suspended international adoptions.
Zoe's Ark was stopped last week from flying the children from Chad to Europe, where the group said it intended to place them with host families in foster care. The group said its intentions were purely humanitarian, and that it had conducted investigations over several weeks to determine that the children had no parents.
But the French Foreign Ministry and others have cast doubt on the assertions that the children were orphans from Darfur, where more than 200,000 people have been killed since fighting erupted in early 2003.
Adding to the questions, the International Committee of the Red Cross and two UN aid agencies said they conducted several days of talks with 21 girls and 81 boys aged 1 to 10 at an orphanage in eastern Chad.
"Ninety-one of the children referred to a family environment made up of at least one adult person whom they consider as a parent," the UN's Children Fund, the UN refugee agency, and the Red Cross said in a joint statement.
UNICEF insists that the child's best interest should always be paramount in an international adoption. The process of moving a child has to be transparent; other options such as the child's remaining with family or appropriate caregivers should be explored. Also, if adoption is deemed in the child's best interest, it has to comply with immigration laws and international norms.
The aid groups said their interviews with the children "suggest that 85 of them come from villages in the border region between Chad and Sudan, in the area of Adre and Tine," which are in Chad. Thousands from Darfur have sought refuge in camps and villages in eastern Chad, so the nationalities of the children were still in question.
The children interviewed said "that they were living in Chadian villages for years, so they may turn out to be Chadian citizens. But until we go to their villages, we can't be sure," said Annette Rehrl, of the UN refugee agency.
Christophe Letien, a spokesman for Zoe's Ark in France, said the children in Chad may consider a village chief or a neighbor to be a relative, for example. But UN refugee agency and Red Cross officials who spoke to the children said they saw the parents.
The UN agencies "questioned the children in 24 hours," Letien said. "Our teams have been there for eight weeks and took the time to do the necessary investigations with local authorities," he added.
The Republic of Congo suspended international adoptions following the events in Chad as "a preventive measure," said Justice Minister Emmanuel Aime Yoka.