N'DJAMENA, Chad – Seven Europeans among 17 detained for over a week in an alleged attempt to kidnap 103 African children were released on Sunday and left the country with French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
It was the second time since taking office in May that the French leader has intervened in a major international legal dispute.
The Europeans — among them nine French citizens — were arrested Oct. 25 when a charity calling itself Zoe's Ark was stopped from flying the children to Europe. The group said the children were from Sudan's Darfur region and that it intended to place them with host families.
Sarkozy met with Chad's leader, Idriss Deby, trading back slaps and cheek kisses, before leaving Chad on his official jet with three French journalists and four flight attendants from Spain.
"They are free. It's over. It's the end," said Jean-Bernard Padare, a lawyer for the group.
Deby said he acted in his own volition: "There is no pressure on Chad, nor on President Deby."
Later Sunday, French television channel M-6 aired a documentary raising further suspicions about how the charity group operated, made mostly with footage shot by one of the journalists who flew home with Sarkozy.
The footage, shot by cameraman Marc Garmirian of the Paris-based Capa Presse agency, shows one charity worker haphazardly screening children brought by tribal elders to the group's center in eastern Chad. Speaking through translators, she demands neither details nor even the most basic documentation or verification.
Asked if she could be mistaken on even the most basic facts — like whether the individual children were Chadian or Sudanese or whether they were indeed orphans — she readily acknowledges she could be wrong.
In other scenes, the charity workers wrap the children's heads and limbs in gauzy bandages, dousing some of them with iodine to make them look, in the words of one worker, like "war casualties."
The footage comes to an abrupt end when Chadian authorities nab the charity workers.
Zoe's Ark maintains its intentions were purely humanitarian and that it had conducted investigations over several weeks to determine the children it was taking were orphans.
However, France's Foreign Ministry and others have cast doubt on the group's claims that the children were orphans from Sudan's western Darfur region, where fighting since 2003 has forced thousands to flee to Chad and led directly or indirectly to the deaths of more than 200,000 people.
Aid workers who interviewed the children said Thursday most of them had been living with adults they considered their parents and came from villages on the Chadian-Sudanese border region.
A report in Le Parisien daily Sunday quoted men who identified themselves as the fathers of several of the children as saying the charity workers offered to educate their children.
They "talked about a new school that had been built ... and (said) our children could be educated there," said a man quoted by the paper who was identified only as Adberahim. He said three of his children were among those taken by the group.
Those detained in the case include the charity workers, the journalists and the crew of the plane the group planned to use to take the children to France. The crew included Spaniards and a Belgian pilot.
In Brussels on Sunday, Belgian Foreign Minister Karel De Gucht said he would send a top diplomat to Chad to learn more about the Belgian pilot's record.
A turning point in the case appeared to come on Thursday, when Deby said on state television that he hoped the journalists and members of the flight crew would be freed soon — distinguishing between them and the charity workers.
On Saturday, the head of Zoe's Ark, Eric Breteau, told judicial officials in Chad that the journalists and the Spanish flight crew had nothing to do with the group's activities.
Earlier this week, Sarkozy had harsh words for Breteau's group, saying its workers "were wrong to do what they did."
The episode comes at a sensitive time in Chad's relations with Europe. The European Union is planning to deploy a peacekeeping force in Chad and Central African Republic composed largely of French soldiers. The 3,000-strong force is to help refugees along the two nations' borders with Darfur.
In July, Sarkozy's then-wife, Cecilia, helped broker the release of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor held for more than eight years in Libya, where they were accused of deliberately infecting hundreds of children with the AIDS virus.