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Kidnapped Chadian kids reunited with their families

  • Story Highlights
  • Nearly 100 children taken by French aid workers reunited with their families
  • Parents gathered at post office in Adre, eastern Chad to collect their children
  • Remaining children from Darfur to remain in Abeche orphanage in Chad
  • Six Zoe's Ark workers were convicted on kidnapping charges in December
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ADRE, Chad (CNN) -- Nearly 100 children at the center of an international scandal that left them stranded at an orphanage in remote eastern Chad returned home after nearly five months Friday, and were being reunited with their families.

Some of the children who were nearly abducted by a French charity, pictured in Abeche in November 2007.

It was a six-hour bus ride from Abeche, in eastern Chad, to Adre, on the border with Sudan, where mothers and fathers gathered at the post office waiting for their children.

During the ride, the bus broke down when its radiator burst.

Those accompanying the children were concerned about rebels causing trouble along the way, but that concern turned out to be unfounded.

The 97 children were taken from their homes in October by a then-obscure French charity, L'Arche de Zoe (Zoe's Ark), which claimed they were orphans from Sudan's war-torn Darfur region. Video Watch as children prepare for return home. »

The group, which registered under the name "Children's Rescue" in Chad, planned to place the orphans with foster families in France.

But Chadian authorities stopped the group just before its first planeload of children departed Abeche, after it was discovered that most of the children -- who range form age one to 10 -- were from Chad and had at least one living parent.

Both Chadian and French officials were quick to criticize the group's actions.

Zoe's Ark head Eric Breteau and five others were convicted of attempted kidnapping.

They were initially sentenced to eight years of hard labor in Chad, but were taken to France and jailed there after French President Nicolas Sarkozy intervened by flying to Chad and appealing directly to President Idriss Deby.

Although UNICEF and other agencies rapidly determined the children were Chadian, finding their parents was an arduous process, as little paperwork on them could be found.

Social workers and officials literally went door-to-door in the Chad-Sudan border region, with photographs in some cases, asking parents whether the children were theirs.

Those efforts were hampered by a February offensive in the capital, N'Djamena, by rebels attempting to oust Deby.

Furthermore, the children could not be returned home until the criminal case involving them was complete.

As the children left the orphanage for the last time on their trip home, Red Cross and UNICEF workers who have cared for them over the months were in tears.

Some of the children are too young to know what is going on, but others, who understand, were only told Thursday they were going home, as officials did not want to raise false hopes.

Six of the children remained in the Abeche orphanage after it was determined they were from Darfur. Their future is unclear.

But the scene in Adre was one of jubilation as families headed out of the post office in a steady stream, taking their children home. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's David McKenzie contributed to this report.

All About ChadFranceKidnappingZoe's ArkUNICEF

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