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.
By Associated Press Writer
updated 11/5/2007 11:29:33 AM ET 2007-11-05T16:29:33

French charity workers charged with kidnapping 103 African children had shoddy methods but were swept up in their belief that they were rescuing orphans from the conflict in Darfur, a journalist who had been detained with them said Monday.

Seventeen Europeans — among them nine French citizens — were arrested in Chad on Oct. 25 when a charity calling itself Zoe's Ark was stopped from flying the children to Europe.

Three French journalists and four Spanish flight attendants were released Sunday and flew home with French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had met with Chad's president.

Television journalist Marc Garmirian, who had accompanied the aid workers from France to report on their effort, raised doubts about the group's methods, saying their "amateurism had dramatic consequences for the children."

Still, he said the children were never in such danger that he felt he should put down his camera to intervene.

Belief in ‘legitimacy of the mission’
"They remained convinced of the legitimacy of the mission that they gave themselves, that is to free orphans from the war in Darfur," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.

He told French radio that the aid workers were not child traffickers.

Zoe's Ark 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.

France's Foreign Ministry and others, however, 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 in the Chadian-Sudanese border region.

Garmirian said determining the children's nationality would be difficult because many were too young to remember if they had ever been attacked or whether they were Sudanese or Chadian.

Thousands of Darfur refugees have fled to Chad to escape fighting.

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.

Kids accepted as orphans without documentation
But French television channel M-6 aired a documentary Sunday by Garmirian that showed one charity worker haphazardly screening children brought by tribal elders to the group's center in eastern Chad. Speaking through translators, Emilie Lelouch 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.

When Garmirian asks if the group is concerned about violating international laws, Lelouch says, "What laws?" However, Garmirian later said that Lelouch had "moments of doubt" about information they received from their Chadian intermediaries.

Marie-Agnes Peleran, a journalist for France-3 television who accompanied the mission as a member of the organization, said she thought the operation happened too quickly for them to be certain whether or not the children were actually orphans. Peleran was also freed Sunday.

The group's biggest mistake, Peleran told France-3, was believing that "the end justified the means without thinking that the means change the end."

In other scenes in the documentary, the charity workers wrap the children's heads and limbs in gauze 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.

The six charity workers have been charged with kidnapping. The plane's Belgian pilot and three Spanish crew members _ two co-pilots and the chief flight attendant _ are being held on accessory charges. The pilots were to be questioned Monday in the case, while the aid workers were to be presented to an investigating judge, according to their Chadian lawyer.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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