Six French citizens charged with kidnapping in Chad

Authorities charged six French nationals with kidnapping after a failed attempt to fly 103 children to France who a charity said were orphans from Sudan's war-battered Darfur region, officials said Tuesday.

The judge in eastern city of Abeche also agreed late Monday to allow prosecutors' charges of complicity against three French journalists, said Justice Minister Pahimi Padacket Albert.

A seven-person flight crew also would be charged with complicity, he told The Associated Press.

Authorities in Chad detained 17 people - nine of them French - after the French charity tried to put the children on a plane last week.

L'Arche de Zoe, or Zoe's Arc, said it had arranged French host families for the children to save them from possible death in Sudan's western Darfur region. More than four years of conflict there has left more than 200,000 people dead and 2.5 million displaced - many to eastern Chad.

UNICEF's representative in Chad, Mariam Coulibaly Ndiaye, said authorities were interviewing the children Monday to learn more about their origins and whether they were truly orphans.

Chad's president denounced it as a "straightforward kidnapping" and promised punishment for those involved. French authorities also have condemned the charity's plans.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy called Chadian President Idriss Deby this weekend to discuss the case, which unfolded as the EU prepares a peacekeeping force in Chad and Central African Republic to help refugees along their borders with Darfur.

France has led the push for the peacekeepers, and the uproar over the charity's actions risked complicating efforts to ensure a smooth start for the force, which Chad initially had resisted.

But Chad has assured France that a debacle over a charity's effort to spirit children out of the country will not affect plans to deploy European Union peacekeepers there to protect refugees from neighboring Darfur, a French official said Monday.

"Because this affair has nothing to do with the deployment of the multidimensional force, there are no possible consequences," France's minister for human rights, Rama Yade, told Europe-1 radio. "And Mr. Deby assured us of that."

In France, police searched the charity's offices as well as the apartment of its founder as part of an inquiry into whether the group broke adoption laws, police officials said. The group initially promised some families that they could adopt - not merely host - children from Darfur, French officials have said.

French diplomats said they had warned Zoe's Ark for months not to go through with its plans. Christophe Letien, spokesman for the charity, insisted its intentions were merely humanitarian.

"The team is made up of firemen, doctors and journalists," he said at a news conference. "It's unimaginable that doubts are being cast on these people of good faith, who volunteered to save children from Darfur."

Two of the detained journalists were covering the operation and a third was reportedly present for personal reasons, according to the media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders. Sarkozy insisted during his conversation with Deby that the journalists' status must be respected, the Foreign Ministry said.

Seven Spanish citizens who work for a Barcelona-based charter airline also were detained in the case, as was a pilot from Belgium, the two countries said. The Chad justice minister made no mention of the Belgian citizen, whose legal status in the country wasn't known.

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Author`s name Angela Antonova