Charity accused of child trafficking

· 16 EU nationals held over planned airlift of ‘orphans’
· Jet charter company says it had permit for flight

Xan Rice in Nairobi, Dale Fuchs in Madrid and Alasdair Sandford in Paris
Monday October 29, 2007
The Guardian

Seven Spanish crew members of a plane hired to spirit 103 children out of Chad are being held by police, along with nine French citizens detained last week, it was confirmed yesterday, as international condemnation grew over a French charity’s bizarre attempt at humanitarianism.The crew were seized along with six members of the charity Zoe’s Ark and three French journalists. The charity claimed its operation “Children Rescue” sought to save the lives of Darfur orphans, aged between one and 10, by housing them with families in France who had each paid more than €2,000.

But Chad’s president, Idriss Deby Itno, who visited the children in the eastern city of Abeche on Friday, described the mission as “child trafficking” and promised severe punishment. France has signalled that it will not intervene to help its detained nationals. Its ambassador to Chad, Bruno Foucher, yesterday described the plan as “a completely illegal operation”, adding: “The members of the association who took part in this whole illegal manipulation will answer for their acts in Chad.”

Aid agencies, including the United Nations’ children’s fund Unicef have also condemned the charity’s actions.

The Chadian authorities are still trying to establish whether the children are orphans, whether some are as sick as the charity claimed, and where they come from. Aid workers suspect that many did not come from Sudan’s Darfur region, but are Chadian.

Girjet, the Barcelona-based charter airline hired to fly the children to France, said yesterday that the plane’s captain, first officer and five flight attendants, four of them women, were in police custody. The company denied any knowledge of a plan to host the children with French families, who waited at an airport near Rheims on Thursday night before learning that the flight was aborted.

“We were told that the children were injured in the conflict [in Darfur] and that we were supposed get these children to French territory to be taken care of, and then they would be taken back, one by one by a different carrier, to their territory once they were OK,” Fernando Zarza, head of Girjet’s flight coordination department told the Guardian. “When we landed, we were taken by surprise by all these questions of illegal adoptions of kids.” He claimed the company had received a permit from the Chad government authorising the evacuation for health reasons.

The case has caused a storm in France, where the authorities have known about the proposed airlift for months. Bernard Kouchner, the French foreign minister, called Mr Deby on Saturday to express “solidarity with the children”. Even the Elysée palace has been drawn into the affair, describing as “totally false” claims that Zoe’s Ark had the backing of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s estranged wife Cécilia.