In a statement later, Madonna spokeswoman Liz Rosenberg confirmed the adoption plans but said 1-year-old David did not leave with Madonna and husband Guy Ritchie because final legal arrangements were still being made. Malawian officials also said the child's departure had been delayed for procedural reasons and that he was being cared for in the meantime by members of Madonna's entourage who stayed behind.
In raising questions about the adoption, Boniface Mandere of Eye of the Child emphasized that his organization was not against international adoption or Madonna helping a child in a country where many face lives of disease, hunger and premature death. Malawi is one of the world's poorest countries, devastated by AIDS and periodic drought.
But "what Eye of the Child is saying is: You cannot buy a child as if you are buying a house," Mandere told The Associated Press. "This process is too short, applying on Tuesday, and yesterday the court gave the OK. I don't think that the High Court has any information about how Madonna is when it comes to child-rearing."
"We are concerned that the High Court has taken a short cut and waived the law. We are registering our concern and will seek clarification from the court, after which we will decide what action to take," Mandere told the AP.
He said Malawi's laws do not allow international adoption unless the parents live in the country for a year, during which time social welfare workers investigate their ability to care for a child.
Malawian officials had indicated earlier that adoption regulations would be eased for Madonna and Ritchie, but refused to elaborate Thursday.
Madonna's private plane departed for an undisclosed destination just before 2 a.m. from Lilongwe Airport.
Madonna and Ritchie have a son, Rocco, 5, and the singer also has a daughter, Lourdes, 9.
On Thursday, Assistant High Court Registrar Thomson Ligowe said after the couple filed for adoption, Judge Andrew Nyirenda issued an interim order allowing the pop star and Ritchie to take David.
The boy's father, Yohame Banda, said he was pleased that the celebrity couple wanted his son, whose mother died just after childbirth. He said he met with them at court during the filing procedures.
"They are a lovely couple," Banda said. "She asked me many questions. She and her husband seem happy with David. I am happy for him. Madonna promised me that as the child grows she will bring him back to visit."
Banda — a poor peasant farmer — said Madonna carried the baby boy while they spoke.
Madonna's charity, Raising Malawi, is setting up an orphan care center to provide food, education and shelter for up to 4,000 children. It will have projects based on Kabbalah, Judaism's mystical sect, which counts the 48-year-old singer among its devotees.
But the adoption, which follows a pattern set by other stars like Angelina Jolie, also raised new questions about the morality of whisking an individual child away rather than providing funds for him or her to be cared for at home.
Madonna arrived in Malawi Oct. 4 on a mission to helps AIDS orphans. She had made no comment to reporters during her stay in Malawi, though she made several public appearances in support of projects to care for AIDS orphans. Rosenberg said in an e-mailed statement Wednesday: "I am unable to make any official statement at this time" on the adoption reports.
Malawi is among the poorest countries in the world, with rampant disease and hunger, aggravated by periodic droughts and crop failure. Some 14 percent of its 12 million people are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and an estimated 1 million children have been orphaned. In many villages, grandparents or older siblings struggle to feed orphans.
In an open letter to Madonna released Tuesday, Eye of the Child had questioned whether foreign adoptions were in the best interests of children.
Jackie Schoeman, executive director Cotlands, a South African organization that cares for children affected by HIV, said the first choice for orphans should be a place in a local family. In Africa, orphans usually are take in by their extended families, but AIDS has affected many of the people who might have traditionally provided support.
"If the only other option is for them to be in a long-term institution, then we would consider international adoption," Schoeman said.
But Mirriam Nyirongo, a retired nurse who runs an orphanage in the northern Malawian town of Mzuzu, said: "We must be frank: We can't afford to look after the thousands of babies that are being orphaned every day.
"If rich people like Madonna take just one child it will be a major boost for Malawi, for people like Baby David, when they come to know their roots, might wish to do the same (for) others."