(AFP) – Oct 31, 2007
ABECHE, Chad (AFP) — Hundreds of angry Chadian women Wednesday yelled abuse at 16 Europeans charged over a botched plan to airlift war orphans from the Chad-Darfur border, accusing them of "child trafficking" and demanding they be tried in Chad.
Protestors hurled stones at foreign journalists in the eastern town of Abeche shouting slogans accusing the former colonial power France of a role in the alleged bid to abduct 103 children to France.
"No to the slave trade! No trafficking in children!" they chanted. "We want those responsible to be tried in Abeche!" one woman shouted out.
Nine French nationals -- six members of the charity Zoe's Ark and three journalists -- face a possible forced labour sentence on charges of kidnapping and extortion, while seven Spanish flight crew are charged with complicity.
The charity says it hoped to save children from Sudan's Darfur region but French officials and UN aid workers say they believe many were from Chad and were not orphans. Would-be foster parents in France had paid several thousand dollars each to receive a child.
The case has ignited tensions with Paris, which is about to take the helm of a European peacekeeping force in Chad tasked with protecting hundreds of thousands of Darfur refugees and internally displaced.
France's foreign ministry confirmed reports that the regional strongman, Libyan leader Moamer Kadhafi, had offered to mediate in the affair.
"We thank Colonel Kadhafi for his willingness to help settle this affair," it said.
But President Nicolas Sarkozy said there was currently "no question" of accepting Kadhafi's offer, saying he was in direct contact with Chadian President Idriss Deby.
Sarkozy repeated he "unambiguously" condemned the operation, but suggested he would seek to have the members of Zoe's Ark -- which is under investigation in France for illegal adoption -- tried in France.
"I think that by clearly putting the Chadians and the French around the table, since the investigation was first opened in France... well you can imagine what my preference would be," he told reporters in Corsica.
Sarkozy also said he would ask Deby to recognise the "presumption of innocence" of journalists "who we know were not involved in the association's activities."
Deby's cabinet director told French radio the location of the trial had yet to be decided.
"Will they be tried in N'Djamena? Will the French authorities ask for them to be tried elsewhere? No one has raised the question yet, and we have no fixed position on the matter," Mahamat Hissene told RFI radio.
The French government is in the firing line for failing to prevent the operation, after it emerged the French army provided the charity members, who include a doctor and volonteer firefighters, with assistance in Chad.
A French diplomat said the negotiations between the French and Chadian government were "about discussion, not about making demands, which could cause tensions."
Spain is also seeking the release of its nationals, the crew of the aircraft chartered for the operation, who are accused of complicity.
In an interview in Spain, a Chadian minister accused Westerners of defying human rights and thinking "anything is allowed in Africa".
"Westerners are the ones who supposedly taught us about rights, human rights, and now they come to our country to violate those rights," Tourism Minister Ibrahim Ahmed Koulamallah told El Pais newspaper.
"If they really want to help, there is no need to take away the children, they can do it by keeping them in our country and helping us."
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