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Last Updated: Wednesday, 31 October 2007, 16:11 GMT
Anger in Chad after 'kidnapping'
BBC world affairs correspondent Mark Doyle reports on a tense atmosphere in Chad after an attempt by French charity workers to take a group of children to Europe.

Chadian women protest in the Chad town of Abeche, 31 October 2007
There is anger on the streets of Abeche

After Chad's President Idriss Deby arrived in the town of Abeche and met a group of more than 100 African children who were destined to be taken to Europe by a French charity, he let rip.

"They treat us like animals," the president said.

"Listen to the children. They are crying for their parents. This is incredible! We will do everything to expose this odious crime."

The alleged smuggling operation was stopped by Chadian officials almost at the last moment while the children were heading for a plane waiting on the tarmac at Abeche airport.

The president's comments were posted on his website and set the tone for a wave of outraged Chadian nationalism which seems bound to poison relations between the former colonial power and its former colony for some time to come.

Furious row

The affair has also provoked a furious row in France with the parliamentary opposition, and normally sober commentators, saying the French government may have committed serious errors.

The French Le Monde newspaper, which is normally well-informed by French diplomatic circles, said the scandal could complicate plans to deploy a French-led European peacekeeping force to the volatile border between Chad and Sudan.

The peacekeeping force had been only reluctantly agreed to by Chad, which had been wary of ceding any influence in the border area.

It's dreadful - I am revolted
Chad President Idriss Deby
But Chadian government officials said the deployment would go ahead.

The foiled attempt to remove the children "will not have any impact on the deployment of European forces in eastern Chad", a government statement said, adding that its aim was "to secure camps for Sudanese refugees and internally displaced Chadians".

The dispute, under which six members of the French charity Zoe's Ark now face child trafficking charges, has also seen the detention of the Spanish crew of a chartered plane - who have been charged with complicity - and at least two French journalists who appear to have been doing a legitimate job reporting on the operation.

No secret

French officials said they had appealed to President Deby to treat the journalists separately from the charity workers - because they were on a legitimate mission - but this request appears to have been snubbed.

"Here's the truth," President Deby said angrily in front of the children, "about this Europe that portrays itself as helping, this Europe which seeks to give lessons to Africa.

"It's dreadful. I am revolted. I cannot accept it."

Presidents Sarkozy of France and Deby of Chad, July 2007
Presidents Sarkozy and Deby in happier times

Most aid workers and French government officials appear to agree with him and condemned the way the charity, Zoe's Ark, apparently gathered up a group of African children to take them to France.

The charity had made no secret of its plans for several months - but said it was intending to "rescue" Sudanese war orphans from the Darfur region of Sudan just over the Chadian border.

Zoe's Ark said its motivation was purely humanitarian. The charity's lawyer said he would prove the charity workers' innocence, point by point.

I think they were wrong to do what they did
French President Nicolas Sarkozy
Investigations by the Chadian government and United Nations humanitarian agencies are still taking place but the early indications are that many of the children were not Sudanese, but Chadian.

Pascale Andreani, a spokeswoman for the French Foreign Ministry, said: "There were a lot of children coming from Chad. Also, apparently, a lot of them were not orphans."

Ms Andreani also pointed out that her ministry had twice publicly condemned the plans of Zoe's Ark to "rescue children", saying they would be potentially illegal - whether they involved Chadian or Sudanese minors.

"I think they were wrong to do what they did," said French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

French officials are furiously distancing themselves from Zoe's Ark - albeit while saying they will give full consular help to their citizens now in a Chadian jail.

'Guilty by omission'

But they have not been able to avert a serious row in France.

Former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, now in opposition, said in parliament: "We have got ourselves into an impossible situation and I would like to know exactly what the French authorities' role was."

Zoe's Ark workers detained in Chad
The detained charity workers have caused a diplomatic row
So would the Chadians.

They may have been interested to read an editorial in Le Monde, which said the French government was "guilty by omission" for not having stopped the Zoe's Ark mission.

The charity workers who carried out the thwarted operation wore T shirts with the logo "Children Rescue", but were associated with Zoe's Ark.

Le Monde reported that the French military had on several occasions given staff from Children Rescue seats on their planes which travel between Ndjamena and Abeche.

And the paper asked how the French military, which has a permanent presence in eastern Chad, had not known about the plan when the charter plane arrived under their noses in Abeche.

Some Chadian government officials could also be in trouble over the affair. The wife of one of the Frenchmen now detained said the charity had obtained permission for the operation from officials at Abeche airport.

Members of the Chadian parliament have demanded to know which government officials were involved and what they knew.

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