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Child abduction issue 'distracts' from relief - Haiti PM

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The US missionaries escorted by police in Port-au-Prince

The Haitian prime minister has warned that the case of 10 US missionaries charged with child abduction is a "distraction" from earthquake recovery.

Jean-Max Bellerive said more than 200,000 people had died in the quake and one million still needed help.

The missionaries have been charged with child abduction and criminal conspiracy.

They deny allegations they tried to smuggle 33 children across the border to the Dominican Republic.

When stopped on the border last Friday, the group said they were taking the children to an orphanage. But it has since emerged some of the youngsters' parents were still alive.

'In good faith'

Mr Bellerive said the case of the missionaries risked diverting international attention from the plight of Haitians who had lost their homes and livelihoods.

"I believe it's a distraction for the Haitian people because they are talking more now about 10 people than they are about one million people suffering in the streets," he said.

Laura Silsby, the head of New Life Children's Refuge
Laura Silsby says the group acted out of compassion

The missionaries' lawyer, Edwin Coq, said his clients were "naive" but not malicious in their actions.

"They had no idea they were violating the law. They were acting in good faith and they just wanted to help," he said.

But he reiterated the group's leader, Laura Silsby, knew that documentation would be needed to remove the children from Haiti.

"I'm going to do everything I can to get the nine [other missionaries] out. They were naive.

"They had no idea what was going on, and they did not know that they needed official papers to cross the border. But Silsby did," Mr Coq said, according to Associated Press.

In Washington, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the two governments were discussing the diplomatically sensitive case.

"It was unfortunate, whatever their motivation, that this group of Americans took matters into their own hands," Mrs Clinton added.

Haitian officials have said that the cases of the 10 US citizens will now be sent to an investigating judge who will decide how to proceed.

If convicted they face lengthy jail terms, says the BBC's Paul Adams, in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince.

'Kidnappers'

After Thursday's hearing the 10 missionaries were taken back to the jail where they have been kept since last Friday.

ANALYSIS
Nick Davies
Nick Davis, BBC News, Port-au-Prince
This case has become the biggest thing since the quake. It's pushed the tragedy - that has seen up to 200,000 killed and countless more made homeless - off the front page.

The issues surrounding this story are important - natural disasters in the past have seen cases of child trafficking. A warning by Unicef saw the increased security by the Haitian authorities that led to the arrest.

With the US spearheading the relief mission and with the American public donating so much to the survivors of the disaster, the expectation of many was that they would be released, that they would turn up at court and, a short time later, be whisked out of the country.

Amid chaotic scenes, the group was bundled into a van outside the court.

"I feel good," Ms Silsby told reporters. "I trust in God."

The five men and five women, most of them from Idaho, were due to have a hearing earlier in the week.

The case was postponed because of a lack of interpreters.

US media reported that Ms Silsby also faces court cases in Boise, Idaho, relating to unpaid wages and legal bills.

Former employees from her shopping website business filed 14 claims for unpaid wages in the past two years.

Some have been resolved, but Ms Silsby is due on court next week for one case, and another is set to begin in March, the Idaho Statesman newspaper reported.

Mr Bellerive has labelled the Americans "kidnappers".

Justice Minister Paul Denis has said that the missionaries should be tried in Haiti, despite the damage to the country's judicial infrastructure and casualties among judges and court staff.

There had been suggestions that the 10 could be tried in the US.

But Mr Denis told the AFP news agency: "It is Haitian law that has been violated, it is up to the Haitian authorities to hear and judge the case.

"I don't see any reason why they should be tried in the United States."

The US ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Merten, said that the US would do all it could to ensure the missionaries were treated fairly and in accordance with Haitian law.

Single village

The children, who are from aged from two to 12, are now in the care of the Austrian-run SOS Children's Village in Port-au-Prince.

Twenty-one of the children were from a single village outside the capital and were handed over willingly by their parents, our correspondent says.

Residents in the village of Callebas told an Associated Press news agency reporter that they had handed their children over through a local orphanage worker who said he was acting on the Americans' behalf.

The worker is said to have promised the families that the missionaries would educate their children in neighbouring Dominican Republic.

A number of parents in the badly-damaged village said they would find it difficult to provide for their children if they came back.

Ms Silsby has said her group had met a Haitian pastor by chance when it arrived last week, and that he had helped them gather the children. She also admitted that the missionaries did not have the proper paperwork.

"Our intent was to help only those children that needed us most, that had lost either both their mother and father, or had lost one of their parents and the other had abandoned them," she said from her jail cell on Wednesday.



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FROM OTHER NEWS SITES
The Scotsman Haitian fury at 'distraction' of US group's abduction case - 10 hrs ago
The Independent Missionaries turn on their leader over 'kidnapping' of Haiti children - 13 hrs ago
Reuters via Yahoo! Bill Clinton urges solution to Haiti 'kidnap' case - 13 hrs ago
NewsMax.com Attorney Says U.S. Baptists Charged in Child Case - 23 hrs ago



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