updated 11/1/2007 9:28:56 PM ET 2007-11-02T01:28:56

Chad’s president said Thursday he hopes his country’s judicial system will quickly free journalists and an air crew detained in connection with a French charity that was trying to fly children it claimed were orphans from Darfur to Europe.

Seventeen Europeans have been detained by Chadian authorities over the past week, including six French citizens who were charged with kidnapping. Three of the detained are French journalists. Seven Spaniards, including two pilots, are part of the air crew as well as a Belgian pilot. The journalists and crew are being held without charge.

“I hope that Chadian justice can very quickly shed light on this affair and that the journalists and the air hostesses and those not involved can be freed without delay,” President Idriss Deby said on state television.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy called Deby on Thursday and had an “extremely positive” conversation, France’s presidential spokesman David Martinon. In a telephone conversation on Wednesday, Sarkozy had urged Deby to free the French journalists.

“We welcome this statement as an encouraging sign,” Martinon said in reaction to Deby’s remarks.

Some doubt kids are orphans
Earlier on Thursday, humanitarian workers cast new doubt on claims by the charity Zoe’s Ark that it was helping Darfur orphans by trying to fly them to Europe, saying most of the children appear to have at least one living parent.

Fallout from the scandal reached across Africa to the Republic of Congo, where officials suspended international adoptions.

Zoe’s Ark was stopped last week from flying the children from Chad to Europe, where the group said it intended to place them with host families in foster care. The group says its intentions were purely humanitarian and that it had conducted investigations over several weeks to determine that the children had no parents.

But the French Foreign Ministry and others have cast doubt on the claims that the children were orphans from Darfur, where more than 200,000 people have been killed since fighting erupted in early 2003.

Adding to the questions, the International Committee of the Red Cross and two U.N. aid agencies said they conducted several days of talks with 21 girls and 81 boys aged between 1 and 10 at an orphanage in eastern Chad.

“Ninety-one of the children referred to a family environment made up of at least one adult person whom they consider as a parent,” the U.N.’s Children Fund, the U.N. refugee agency and the Red Cross said in a joint statement.

UNICEF insists that the child’s best interest should always be paramount in an international adoption. The process of moving a child has to be transparent; other options such as the child’s remaining with family or appropriate caregivers should be explored; and if adoption is deemed in the child’s best interest, it has to comply with immigration laws and international norms.

Nationality of kids unclear
The aid groups said their interviews with the children “suggest that 85 of them come from villages in the border region between Chad and Sudan, in the area of Adre and Tine,” which are both in Chad. Thousands from Darfur have sought refuge in camps and villages in eastern Chad, so the nationalities of the children were still in question.

The children interviewed said “that they were living in Chadian villages for years, so they may turn out to be Chadian citizens. But until we go to their villages, we can’t be sure,” said Annette Rehrl, of the U.N. refugee agency.

Christophe Letien, a spokesman for Zoe’s Ark in France, maintained that the children were orphans.

The U.N. agencies “questioned the children in 24 hours,” he said. “Our teams have been there for eight weeks and took the time to do the necessary investigations with local authorities.”

According to its Web site, Zoe’s Ark, founded in 2005 by volunteer firefighter Eric Breteau, announced in April it planned on “evacuating orphans from Darfur.” The group launched an appeal for host families and funding.

The French Foreign Ministry in August warned families to be careful. Still, some 300 families reportedly signed up to adopt or foster children, and many were waiting at a French airport last week for the children when they heard members of the group had been arrested.

Congo suspends all international adoptions
The Republic of Congo suspended all international adoptions following the events in Chad as “a preventive measure,” said Justice Minister Emmanuel Aime Yoka.

Yoka said the Chad incident occurred only a few days after 17 children from the Republic of Congo were adopted by Spanish families. He said the two events were not connected, but said the coincidence of timing led the government to re-examine its policies.

Republic of Congo is checking the situation of the children in Spain, he said.

In Paris, Marie-Claude Arnauld, vice president of the French association Childhood and Adoptive Families, said Republic of Congo’s decision could lead to restrictions on international adoptions from other countries.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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