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Chad Kidnap Scandal Kids Going Home

The U.N. children's agency said Friday it will hand over 103 children to their relatives after the children were caught up in an abduction case in Chad.

The children have been in an orphanage in the eastern Chadian town of Abeche since late October, when French aid workers were stopped from taking them out of Chad. The 21 girls and 82 boys aged between one and 10 years will be handed over to relatives in Chad "in the coming days," UNICEF spokeswoman Veronique Taveau said.

She said Chad's government has approved the plan. Earlier, UNICEF had linked the time it was taking to return the children to their families to bureaucratic difficulties, Chadian government officials' determination to ensure the children were returned to the correct guardians and insecurity in eastern Chad. Part of the problem was that Zoe's Ark, the little known French aid group involved, had left little paperwork identifying the children, UNICEF officials had said.

Zoe's Ark had said it intended to fly the children - whom it identified as war orphans from neighboring Sudan's wartorn Darfur province - to France, where they were to be cared for by host families. Investigations showed the children were Chadian, not Sudanese, and that most of the children had at least one parent or close adult relative.

In December, a Chadian court convicted six Zoe's Ark workers on kidnapping charges and sentenced them to eight years of forced labor. Days later, they were sent to France under a judicial agreement between the two countries. In France, which does not have a hard labor sentence, their sentences were converted into eight years in prison.

Chadians were so angered by the affair that they staged a stone-throwing, anti-French demonstration in the capital, N'Djamena, in November.

Chad's President Idriss Deby, who has received key support from the French government in the face of attacks by Chadian rebels, has said Thursday he was considering pardoning the aid workers, but wants the children's families to receive some euro8 million (US$12.26 million) in compensation.

"A solution must be found," Deby told France-24 television. "If by chance the members of Zoe's Ark aren't in a position to do so, the Chadian state will have to compensate the parents of these children."