By Stephanie Hancock and Francois Murphy
N’DJAMENA/PARIS, Oct 25 (Reuters) – Police in Chad arrested nine French people on Thursday as they were preparing to fly more than 100 children to France with a view to having them adopted, Chad’s government and French diplomats said.
They included the head of a group called Zoe’s Ark, which said earlier this year that it intended to bring orphans from Sudan’s violent Darfur region to France for adoption. Chad’s Interior Minister, Ahmat Mahamat Bachir, said the nine French citizens were arrested at Abeche airport in eastern Chad, near the Darfur border, and were being held in police custody in the town.
“They had no official authorisation We have opened an inquiry,” Bachir told Reuters by telephone.
“They’ll be spending several nights here,” he said, adding Chadian children were among the 103 infants aged between three and eight years old. Not all of them were orphans, he said.
The French Foreign Ministry issued a warning about Zoe’s Ark in August, saying there was no guarantee the children were helpless orphans and casting doubt on the project’s legality.
The French group had planned to fly the children from Abeche to France in a rented French charter plane, Bachir said.
An investigation was under way to find out who the children were and where they were from, though it seemed that they had been grouped in Adre, also near the border with Sudan, before being taken to Abeche, a French diplomat said.
Since the Foreign Ministry’s warning, Zoe’s Ark had stopped saying its aim was to have the children adopted, he said.
“They explained that these children would first be housed in France, and we understand that they then explained to the (host) families that there would be a legal battle afterwards to have them adopted,” the diplomat added.
Families from France and Belgium paid to have the children flown to an airport in Vatry, 120 km (75 miles) east of Paris, he said.
“We believe they paid between 2,800 and 6,000 (euros) … to receive a child,” the diplomat said.
“There are around 300 families that contributed and when you do the multiplication, if we are not mistaken, that’s a little more than 1 million euros,” he added.
Whether the group was acting out of concern for the children’s welfare or for financial gain was unclear and would be investigated, the diplomat said.
Zoe’s Ark says it is helping rescue children.
“(Zoe’s Ark) proposes to willing host families that they help and take into their homes an orphan child less than five years old who is a refugee of the war in Darfur,” its Web site says.
The French Foreign Ministry, however, condemned it.
“We firmly denounce the conditions in which this operation seems to have been organised,” it said in a statement, adding that a Paris court had launched a criminal investigation to determine what had happened.
“Chad, like Sudan — from where the children could have come — are sovereign states that do not authorise adoption. It is currently absolutely impossible for a French family to launch a procedure to adopt a Chadian or Sudanese child,” it added.