IMAGE: RELEASED AID WORKER
Lionel Cironneau  /  AP
Philippe Van Winkelberg, a doctor with the French charity Zoe's Ark, leaves a prison in southern France Monday after Chad's president pardoned him and five others in a case involving children the group was trying to take out of Chad.
updated 3/31/2008 8:20:56 PM ET 2008-04-01T00:20:56

All six French aid workers convicted in a mass kidnapping in Chad have been freed in France, hours after the Chadian president formally pardoned the group, the French Justice Ministry said.

The six, from a charity called Zoe's Ark, had tried to spirit 103 children to France in October, claiming they were orphans from Sudan's Darfur region. However, an investigation showed that the children were Chadian, and that most had at least one parent or a close adult relative.

In December, a Chadian court convicted the six on kidnapping charges and sentenced them to 8 years of forced labor. They were sent to France on Dec. 28 where the sentence was converted into 8 years in prison.

Justice Ministry spokesman Guillaume Didier said the six were freed Monday evening. They had been held in prisons scattered around France. Four remain subject to a separate judicial probe in France.

Zoe's Ark leader Eric Breteau and his girlfriend, Emelie Le Louche, apparently left Fresnes prison, south of Paris, by a side door, escaping some 30 journalists and photographers at the main gate. Didier said the pair left about 9:30 p.m.

One remains hospitalized
One member of the group, Nadia Merimi, a nurse, was freed but remained at Villejuif Hospital, where she was being treated for an unspecified illness, a judicial official said. Not authorized to comment on the situation, the official asked not to be named.

"Wisdom has prevailed," Merimi's lawyer, Mario Stasi, said by telephone after the pardon was announced.

The case of the aid workers had inflamed anti-French sentiment in Chad, but President Idriss Deby raised hopes for the six after French support helped him ward off a rebel attack on his capital in February. Days later, on Feb. 7, he said he was "ready to pardon."

He signed the pardon decree Monday.

"He is with me, outside under a starry sky," the joyful wife of Alain Peligat, a logistics specialist for Zoe's Ark, said by telephone from the Aube region southeast of Paris.

"He intends to see his family again, find his mark," said Christine Peligat, adding that he hopes to return to his job as a lorry driver instructor.

A doctor in the group, Philippe Van Winkelberg, was freed in Draguinon, in southern France.

A smiling Dominique Aubry, also a logistics specialist for the group, left a prison in Caen in the western Normandy region, hugging a loved one after walking out.

Some children still in limbo
The 103 children gathered up by the group in the eastern Chad town of Abeche spent months in an orphanage after their flight to France was stopped. Some have yet to be reunited with their families. Delays were linked to bureaucratic difficulties, Chadian government officials' determination to ensure the children were returned to the correct guardians and insecurity in eastern Chad.

One source of the problem was that Zoe's Ark had left little paperwork identifying the children, U.N. officials involved in caring for the children had said.

Fallout from the Zoe's Ark affair was bitter for aid groups, some of whom faced suspicion by authorities in Africa.

"This sad adventure must not tarnish the image of humanitarian action and all those who devote a part of their life to it," said a statement by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who co-founded Doctors Without Borders.

The travails of Zoe's Ark members are not over despite their release from prison.

Four of the six face preliminary charges of fraud and irregular adoption and could be tried here if a French investigation concludes there is cause.

Chad's president had said that he wanted the children's families to receive a total of $12 million in compensation, though his pardon would not be conditional on receiving money. He also said that if France would not pay the compensation, then his government would.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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