N'DJAMENA, Chad – Six French nationals have been charged with kidnapping after a failed attempt to fly from Chad with 103 children a charity said were orphans from Sudan's war-battered Darfur region, authorities said Tuesday.
Interior Minister Ahmat Bachir said that, if they were found guilty, they would face up to 20 years in prison with hard labor. Prisoners in Chad are often put to work for the state.
A judge in the eastern city of Abeche also agreed late Monday to allow prosecution charges of complicity against three French journalists, Justice Minister Pahimi Padacket Albert said.
A seven-person flight crew also would be charged with complicity, he told The Associated Press. The accused would be flown this week to the capital, N'Djamena.
Authorities in Chad detained 17 people — nine of them French — after the French charity tried to put the children on a plane last week.
L'Arche de Zoe, or Zoe's Ark, said it had arranged French host families for the children to save them from possible death in Sudan's western Darfur region. More than four years of conflict there has left more than 200,000 people dead and 2.5 million displaced — many to eastern Chad.
French Justice Minister Rachida Dati said France had a judicial agreement with Chad that would enable the African country to return the six to France to face trial, if it chooses to do so.
"In the framework of this agreement, Chad can say, 'we are leaving France the possibility of handling this judicial case,"' a step that has not happened so far, she told Europe-1 radio.
French Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Pascale Andreani said Tuesday that France was sending a doctor and legal adviser to meet with the group's detained members.
Asked how the group could have made such detailed arrangements without the government being aware, Andreani said: "We are not in a police state. We do not control the comings and goings of everyone."
"We understand the desire of aid groups (to help people), but let's do it in a reasonable manner," she said.
Andreani said the origin of the children was still not clear, as well as whether they were in fact orphans.
She said France would decide whether to request extradition of the group's members after Chadian judicial officials ruled on the case.
Gilbert Collard, a lawyer for the group, said the charges against his clients were less severe than he had feared, given harsh comments by President Idriss Deby about them.
"Now we are going to work with Chadian lawyers and contest all the elements against them, one by one," he said. "We are entering difficult territory, but one that is now clearly defined."
Seven Spanish citizens who work for a Barcelona-based charter airline also were detained in the case, as was a pilot from Belgium, the two countries said. The Chad justice minister made no mention of the Belgian citizen, whose legal status in the country was not known.
Deby denounced it as a "straightforward kidnapping" and promised punishment for those involved. French authorities also have condemned the charity's plans.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy called Deby this weekend to discuss the case, which has unfolded as the EU is preparing a peacekeeping force in Chad and Central African Republic to help refugees along their borders with Darfur.
France has led the push for the peacekeepers, and the uproar over the charity's actions risked complicating efforts to ensure a smooth start for the force, which Chad initially had resisted.
Andreani insisted there was "no link" between this debacle and the deployment of the EU force.
Two of the detained journalists were covering the operation and a third was reportedly present for personal reasons, according to the media watchdog group Reporters Without Borders. Sarkozy insisted during his conversation with Deby that the journalists' status must be respected, the Foreign Ministry said.
Herve Chabalier, who runs the CAPA TV agency, insisted that reporter Marc Garmirian was just there doing his job as a journalist.
"Obviously I am distraught, because the last news we had last night suggested that a distinction would finally be made" (between the journalists and volunteers of the charity), Chabalier told France Info radio. "Obviously that was not done."
"What I wanted was to prevent Marc from getting into the cogs of Chad's justice system, because it will take longer and because this guy, who represents freedom of information, is going to be deprived of freedom," he said.