Image: Sarkozy
Karel Prinsloo  /  AP
French President Nicolas Sarkozy, left, walks behind a Spanish air hostess after she and others were freed on Sunday in the Chad capital, N'Djamena.
updated 11/4/2007 7:07:49 PM ET 2007-11-05T00:07:49

Seven Europeans among 17 detained for over a week in an alleged attempt to kidnap 103 African children were released Sunday and left the country with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

It was the second time since taking office in May that the French leader has intervened in a major international legal dispute.

The Europeans — among them nine French citizens — were arrested Oct. 25 when a charity calling itself Zoe’s Ark was stopped from flying the children to Europe. The group said the children were orphans from Sudan’s Darfur region where more than 200,000 have died in conflict since 2003. It said it intended to place them with host families.

However, France’s Foreign Ministry and others have cast doubt on the group’s claims. Aid workers who interviewed the children said Thursday most of them had been living with adults they considered their parents and came from villages on the Chadian-Sudanese border region.

The 17 originally detained included six French charity workers, three French journalists and the crew of the plane that the group planned to use to take the children to France. The crew was made up of Spaniards and a Belgian pilot.

The six charity workers have been charged with kidnapping and are still in detention. The other four — three Spanish crew and the Belgian pilot of the plane — are being held on accessory charges.

Sarkozy met with Chad’s leader, Idriss Deby, trading back slaps and cheek kisses, before leaving Chad on his official jet with the three French journalists and four flight attendants from Spain.

“They are free. It’s over. It’s the end,” said Jean-Bernard Padare, a lawyer for the group.

The French president’s plane landed Sunday night at a Spanish air force base outside Madrid, where Sarkozy and the flight crew members were greeted by Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero and relatives of the flight attendants.

The group then continued on to France, landing at a military air base outside Paris. Friends and family greeted the three journalists on the tarmac with excited hugs. The journalists spoke only briefly to the media, saying they would hold a news conference on Monday.

‘Idealists but not criminals’
One of the three, Marie-Agnes Peleran, briefly defended the character of the charity’s workers, who are still detained in Chad.

“They’re idealists but not criminals,” she told LCI television.

Earlier, Deby said in Chad that he acted in his own volition when he freed the seven.

“There is no pressure on Chad, nor on President Deby,” he said.

Later Sunday, French television channel M-6 aired a documentary raising further suspicions about how the charity group operated, made mostly with footage shot by one of the freed journalists who flew home with Sarkozy.

The footage, shot by cameraman Marc Garmirian of the Paris-based Capa Presse agency, shows one charity worker haphazardly screening children brought by tribal elders to the group’s center in eastern Chad. Speaking through translators, she demands neither details nor even the most basic documentation or verification.

Asked if she could be mistaken on even the most basic facts — such as whether the individual children were Chadian or Sudanese or whether they were indeed orphans — she readily acknowledges she could be wrong.

In other scenes, the charity workers wrap the children’s heads and limbs in gauzy bandages, dousing some of them with iodine to make them look, in the words of one worker, like “war casualties.”

The footage comes to an abrupt end when Chadian authorities nab the charity workers.

Zoe’s Ark maintains its intentions were purely humanitarian and that it had conducted investigations over several weeks to determine the children it was taking were orphans.

During more than four years of fighting in Darfur, thousands have fled across the border into Chad to escape the fighting. Aid workers have said most of the 103 children had been living for years in Chad and they had not yet determined whether they were indeed from Darfur.

A report in Le Parisien daily Sunday quoted men who identified themselves as the fathers of several of the children as saying the charity workers offered to educate their children.

They “talked about a new school that had been built ... and (said) our children could be educated there,” said a man quoted by the paper who was identified only as Adberahim. He said three of his children were among those taken by the group.

Earlier this week, Sarkozy had harsh words for the charity, saying its workers “were wrong to do what they did.”

Pilot, crew still in custody
A turning point in the case appeared to come on Thursday, when Deby said on state television that he hoped the journalists and members of the flight crew would be freed soon — distinguishing between them and the charity workers.

Deby told reporters that the Belgian pilot is 75 years old with health problems, and that his case would be treated as a humanitarian matter. It was not clear why the pilot and the rest of the crew were not freed Sunday.

In Brussels on Sunday, Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht said he would send a top diplomat to Chad to learn more about the Belgian pilot’s record.

On Saturday, the head of Zoe’s Ark, Eric Breteau, told judicial officials in Chad that the journalists and the Spanish flight crew had nothing to do with the group’s activities.

The episode comes at a sensitive time in Chad’s relations with Europe. The European Union is planning to deploy a peacekeeping force in Chad and Central African Republic composed largely of French soldiers. The 3,000-strong force is to help refugees along the two nations’ borders with Darfur.

In July, Sarkozy’s then-wife Cecilia helped broker the release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor held for more than eight years in Libya. They were accused of deliberately infecting hundreds of children with the AIDS virus in a hospital where they worked.

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

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