Three Spaniards detained in a charity's alleged plot to take 103 African children to Europe returned home on a Spanish government jet Friday, after tense diplomatic negotiations with Chad.
The three flight crew members and a detained Belgian pilot — also due to leave Friday on a Belgian military aircraft — had been charged with complicity in the alleged kidnapping plot, Chadian lawyer Jean-Bernard Padare said. A judge later ordered their release.
Six workers with the French charity Zoe's Ark remain in custody in Chad, charged with attempted kidnapping. A conviction could mean 20 years in prison at hard labor.
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 intended to help refugees along the two nations' borders with Darfur.
Seventeen Europeans in all were arrested after Zoe's Ark was stopped on Oct. 25 from flying the children to Europe.
The group said its intentions were strictly humanitarian: After determining that the children were orphans from Sudan's Darfur region, it wanted to place the children with host families in Europe.
France's Foreign Ministry and others, however, have cast doubt on the claim that the children were orphans from Darfur, where fighting since 2003 has forced thousands to flee to Chad. Aid workers who interviewed the children said a majority of them reported living with at least one adult they considered a parent.
French investigators were also looking into the activities of the aid group. In Paris on Friday, investigating judges searched the office of the Capa media agency. Capa reporter Marc Garmirian, who had filmed the groups for weeks, was among several journalists detained in the case and released Sunday. The judges were looking into possible charges of illegal adoption and fraud against the aid group.
Three French journalists and three female Spanish flight crew members were released Sunday, and flown from the country by French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The Spaniards were contracted by Zoe's Ark to fly the children to France. The Belgian, also hired by the French charity, had piloted a plane carrying some of the children around Chad.