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Aid Workers Face Jail Over Chad "Orphans"

Six French citizens likely face jail time after being arrested in Chad for trying to fly 103 children to France without authorization, a senior Chadian official told a British broadcaster.

Seventeen people -- nine of them French -- were arrested in Chad on Thursday after a charity tried to put 103 children on a plane to France. The charity said they were orphans from Darfur whom they wanted to protect.

Chad's interior minister told the British Broadcasting Corp. Monday that six French aid workers would likely get prison sentences for their actions. Ahmat Mahamat Bachir said a judge was expected to file abduction charges against the workers as early as Monday.

The BBC also reported that United Nations officials had contested the French suspects' claim that all the children were orphans from Darfur. According to a report by the British media outlet, staffers from the U.N. children's agency UNICEF said many of the kids involved were from villages in Chad.

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

"They made fake visas, which means they forged the documents. For us, abduction is more than a crime. They could be put in jail for several years," the BBC quoted Bachir as saying. "They committed the offence in Chad, so they would be imprisoned in Chad of course, it's very probable."

The children involved were being cared for at an orphanage in the Chadian city of Abeche.

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 the strife-torn Darfur region of Sudan.

Chad has assured France that the debacle will not affect plans to deploy European Union peacekeepers to protect Darfurian refugees in Chad.

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 had initially resisted.

"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."

Nine French nationals were arrested Thursday in Chad. The charity, called L'Arche de Zoe, or Zoe's Ark, said it had arranged French host families for the children to save them from violence in Darfur. The western Sudanese region is engulfed in a nearly five-year conflict that has left more than 200,000 people dead and 2.5 million displaced -- many to eastern Chad.

The operation came to a halt with the arrests. UNICEF's representative in Chad, Mariam Coulibaly Ndiaye, condemned it and said authorities were interviewing the children Monday to learn more about their origins and whether they are truly orphans.

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."

Three journalists were among the detained French. Two of them 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 were also detained in the case, as was a pilot from Belgium, the two countries said. The charity had chartered a plane to take the children to France.

The Spanish ambassador to Cameroon, Maria Jesus Alonso, was heading to Chad's capital Monday to meet with government officials about the seven detained Spaniards. Her goal is "to help in any possible" way and provide "maximum consular assistance," a Foreign Ministry official said. The Spanish consul in Cameroon, Vicente Mas, also was in Chad.

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