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French Group Accused Of Child Trafficking

Authorities said Saturday they were holding seven crew members of a plane contracted to fly more than 100 children out of Chad, as President Idriss Deby called an attempt by nine French citizens to spirit the children away to Europe "shocking" and promised punishment for anyone found to have been involved.

Deby traveled Friday to the eastern city of Abeche where 103 children were being cared for after authorities arrested the French citizens, who had attempted to fly the kids to France. French aid group, L'Arche de Zoe, or Zoe's Arc, said it had arranged French host families for the children. It said they were orphans from Sudan's crisis-stricken Darfur region.

Late Friday, state television showed Deby visiting with the children, many of them in tears. Deby called the situation "intolerable" and "shocking" and said: "Everyone who is implicated will be punished."

Spanish media reported that seven Spanish crew members, four men and three women, belonging to Barcelona-based air charter company Girjet were also detained by authorities in Chad, and that their passports and mobile phones were confiscated. The company said it had guaranteed transport out of Chad for the kids, but that it was not otherwise involved in the plan, media reported.

Chad's government spokesman, Hourmadji Moussa Doumgor, confirmed that seven members of the plane crew were detained, but gave no details on their nationalities. He said all the foreigners would be transferred Monday from Abeche to the capital, N'djamena, where the investigation would continue.

Doumgor said authorities were trying to ascertain the family status of each of the children, and would search refugee camps along the Chad-Darfur border for any of the kids' parents.

UNICEF France was questioning each of the 103 children, and said 48 questioned so far appeared to be Chadian, not Sudanese.

"I can tell you that these 48, according to the name of the village they gave us, are all Chadians," the organization's head, Jacques Hintzy, told RTL radio.

"Our impression is that the majority aren't orphans, but at this stage it's just an impression," Hintzy said, adding that UNICEF, the U.N. child protection agency, would try to locate the children's families.

He also said none of the children was injured, and claimed that bandages seen on them had been applied to give the impression this was a health-related evacuation.

Rama Yade, France's junior minister for human rights, denounced the incident on France-2 TV station Friday night, calling it "an action both illegal from the viewpoint of the law and irresponsible from the moral viewpoint."

"We did everything we could to forbid, to prevent this operation," she said.

The ministry had warned French citizens months ago against taking in children from Darfur, saying aid groups on the ground there had opposed the appeal by Zoe's Arc.

Diplomatic officials have said such an evacuation mission could infringe on national laws and threatened to exploit the troubles of the children in the region.

Stephanie Lefebvre, secretary-general of Zoe's Arc, said the group asked host families for 2,400 euros ($3,400) each to pay for the operation's logistics, but that some had given much less. She stressed that the families were not adopting the children, but merely taking them in.

"We just wanted to save them from death, by giving them a host family," she told Le Parisien.

The Darfur region has suffered 4½-years of conflict that has left more than 200,000 people dead and 2.5 million displaced.

The violence began when ethnic African rebels in Darfur took up arms against the Arab-led government in 2003, accusing it of decades of discrimination and neglect. The government is accused of retaliating by unleashing a militia of Arab nomads known as the janjaweed - a charge it denies.