Seven Europeans among 17 detained in an alleged attempt to kidnap 103 African children were released Sunday and left the country with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
The Europeans, including nine French citizens, were arrested Oct. 25 when a charity calling itself Zoe’s Ark was stopped from flying the children to Europe. The group said the children were orphans from Sudan’s Darfur region whom it intended to place with host families.
France’s Foreign Ministry and others have cast doubt on the group’s claims. Aid workers who interviewed the children said Thursday that most of them had been living with adults they considered their parents and came from villages in the Chadian-Sudanese border region.
Zoe’s Ark maintains its intentions were purely humanitarian and that it had conducted investigations over several weeks to determine that the children were orphans.
The 17 originally detained included six French charity workers, three French journalists and the crew of the plane that the group planned to use to take the children to France. The crew was made up of Spaniards and a Belgian pilot.
The six charity workers have been charged with kidnapping and are still being held. Three Spanish crew members and the Belgian pilot are still being held on accessory charges.
Sarkozy met with Chad’s leader, Idriss Deby, trading backslaps and cheek kisses before leaving Chad on his official jet with the three French journalists and four flight attendants from Spain. It was not clear why only part of the crew was released.
The French president’s plane landed Sunday night at a Spanish air force base outside Madrid, where Sarkozy and the flight crew members were greeted by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and relatives of the flight attendants.
It then continued on to France, landing at a military air base outside Paris.
One of the three journalists, Marie-Agnes Peleran, briefly defended the character of the charity’s workers.
“They’re idealists but not criminals,” she told LCI TV.